Explosion Severity: Propane versus Natural Gas

Alfonso Ibarreta, Ph.D., PE, CFEI,
Timothy Myers, Ph.D., PE, CFEI, CFI,
James Bucher, Ph.D., CFEI and
Kevin Marr, Ph.D., CFEI
Exponent, USA

Presented at International Symposium on Fire Investigation, 2012


Natural gas, composed mainly of methane, is in some ways similar to propane gas. Both fuels have similar energy densities per unit mass, and similar laminar premixed flame burning velocities. However, propane explosions have been shown to produce higher overpressures in unconfined explosion tests when compared to methane. In vapor cloud explosion modeling, methane is considered to be a “low” reactivity fuel, while propane is listed as a “medium” reactivity fuel. In closed vessel explosion testing, the maximum rate of pressure rise for propane is almost twice than that for methane (based on KG  values reported in NFPA 68 (2007) Standard for Explosion Protection by Deflagration Venting , table E.1).

This study provides a direct comparison of the explosion severity between commercial propane and natural gas. Empirical correlations available for vented vessel explosions and unconfined Vapor Cloud Explosions (VCEs) are used to predict the difference in overpressure expected for a commercial propane explosion versus natural gas explosion. Although the maximum laminar burning velocity associated with propane is only about 15% higher than that associated with methane, commercial propane explosions are expected to result in overpressures that are about 40% higher than that of a natural gas explosion under identical conditions with a perfectly-mixed nearstoichiometric fuel-air mixture, based on empirical correlations.

In addition to the laminar burning velocity, other fundamental differences in the fuels may also play an important role in the explosion severity. Propane has a slightly higher expansion ratio than methane when undergoing combustion. The mass diffusivity of propane and methane are also quite different, making the premixed propane flame more prone to wrinkling under turbulent conditions. Future testing in the 20-L explosion chamber is suggested.

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