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Was Sodium Causing Factory Fires?
Was Sodium Causing Factory Fires?
One summer a factory producing coloring dyes was experiencing many alarms signaling a fire. What was causing these fires?
Mysteries of Science
Dr. Gilleo
Mysteries of Science by Dr. Ken Gilleo
Dr. Gilleo is a chemist, inventor and general problem solver. Ken has been tracking industrial forensics and collecting case histories for decades. These cases are taken from the vast world of industry and commercial enterprise.

Check out Dr. Gilleo's eBook, 100 Mysteries Solved by Science. We hope you enjoy these case histories. You need not be an engineer or scientist to understand the problems and appreciate the solutions.
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Transcript
One of the main products of the National Aniline factory was coloring dyes. Many of the raw materials were hazardous, but once reacted were safe to transport and use. Small amounts of sodium which is highly reactive were used in the dye mix.

The plant utilized an emergency alarm system consisting of an ancient whistle that delivered a series of long and short blasts to indicate the location and type of problem if one occurred. 

One summer the factory was experiencing many alarms signaling a fire. The head of safety for the factory was trying to figure out how to reduce the number of alarms and incidents.

The fires had all occurred in batches that contained sodium and metal. It was likely that the sodium was igniting causing the alarm. 

What was causing the materials to ignite resulting in daily alarms for the factory? 

Here's the rest of the story.

The materials sat in an open wheelbarrow while the reactor operator got things ready. When it rained, a slow leak in the roof directly overhead would dampen the mix enough for the sodium to react and start a fire. But, before ignition could occur, the reactor operator would move the wheelbarrow over to the reactor room.

It took about 10-minutes for the rain water to seep down to the chunks of sodium. There were no leaks in the reactor room where the mix was igniting so a leaky roof was not considered.

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