Safety Considerations for Biodiesel NOTES

This project is sponsored in part by the USDA National Biodiesel Education Program
components to make biodiesel can be hazardous in some situations.
These components include: alcohols, strong bases and strong acids.
Alcohols such as Methanol and Ethanol
Safety Considerations for Biodiesel
Biodiesel is an alternative diesel fuel that provides many environmetal advantages over petroleum-based fuels. Biodiesel
is safer than conventional diesel fuel but there are certain safety
precautions to take into account during the production of biodiesel. Established guidelines for formulating and implementing a safety plan can be found within two agencies and a federal law; The Occupational Safety and Health Administration
(OSHA), the National Research Council (NRC) and the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA).
OSHA’s mission is to assure the safety and health of America’s
workers by setting and enforcing standards; providing training,
outreach, and education; establishing partnerships; and encouraging continual improvement in workplace safety and health.
The agency’s hazardous communication standard requires material safety data sheets (MSDS) to be provided to employees
by the chemical supplier. It is imperative to have these sheets
prominently displayed and within easy reach of personnel. These
sheets should cover all products used in the plant. They provide the key to treatment in case of an accidental exposure and/
or spill as well as some preventative measures.
The NRC is currently administered jointly by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the
Institute of Medicine. It has developed a lab safety publication entitled, Prudent Practices for Handling Hazardous Chemicals in
Laboratories. It recommends that a chemical hygiene plan be instituted in every lab including adequate ventilation and clearly states
guidelines for minimum exposure to hazardous chemicals. The plan
should also include an employee training plan, adequate record
keeping, signs and labels indicating potential hazards and safety
procedures, and procedures for spills and accidents. It can be purchased or read on-line for free at:
The EPCRA was passed in response to concerns regarding the
environmental and safety hazards posed by the storage and handling of toxic chemicals and has four major provisions: emergency planning, emergency release notification, hazardous
chemical storage reporting requirements and toxic chemical
release inventory. More information can be found at:
Biodiesel is a relatively safe product. It is considered non-flam
-mable, biodegradable, and is not DOT regulated. However, the
Methanol is the driving force behind the transesterification reaction.
It is colorless and tasteless with a mildly sweet odor and is toxic. It can
enter the body through respiration, direct skin contact or accidental
swallowing. It is slowly eliminated from the body and thus is considered a cumulative poison and repeated exposure can present longterm health hazards. Personnel working with methanol should wear
protective clothing and a full face respirator with a cartridge rated for
organic volatiles. For more information go to:
Methanol is highly volatile with a flash point of 12°C and it burns
with a nearly invisible flame. Its vapors are heavier than air and
may travel some distance to a source of ignition, hence it has a fire
hazard rating of 3 out of 4 by the National Fire Prevention Association. Methanol should be stored outside in bonded and grounded steel tanks with secondary containment and under a nitrogen
blanket. The Methanol Institute ( has posted a
handbook for safe storage and handling of methanol. If a fire does
occur, dry chemical powder, carbon dioxide (CO2) and alcohol resistant foam will extinguish it by oxygen starvation. Water in the
form of a fine mist will absorb vapors, quench heat and provide
a curtain shield for upwind advancement. Several disastrous fires
and explosions have occurred in the biodiesel industry because
workers were cutting or welding on tanks that had held methanol. Proper procedures to expel air and methanol vapor should
always be followed before moving or modifying methanol tanks.
Ethanol in its absolute form (anhydrous) can also be used to make
biodiesel. It is less toxic than methanol but the same general safety
guidelines for handling and storage should be observed.
First Aid for Methanol: Call 911
Inhalation: Move victim to fresh air and keep warm and
rested. Monitor breathing. If breathing is difficult do not give
mouth to mouth as this may expose rescuer to methanol. Use
oxygen if trained to do so.
Ingestion: Give 2 glasses of water and induce vomiting if
directed to do so.
Eyes: Flush with water at least 15 minutes.
Skin: Wash with soap and water at least 15 minutes. Remove
clothing and shoes. Patient should be seen by a doctor.
Strong Bases such as Sodium and Potassium Hydroxide
or Methoxide
Used to catalyze the transesterification reaction, sodium and potassium hydroxide/methoxides are extremely corrosive. The hydroxides are dry flakes or pellets and must be dissolved in methanol
whereas the methoxides are supplied as a concentrate in methanol.
This liquid will kill nerve cells before the pain can be felt and the
dust from the hydroxides will burn unprotected skin and eyes. Dissolving the hydroxides in alcohol is an exothermic reaction and
can generate a considerable amount of heat. Stirring the liquid can
produce a fine mist of liquid droplets. If this mist is accidentally
inhaled breathlessness and severe irritation of the respiratory tract
can occur. Accidental swallowing can lead to major damage to the
* Fall 2007 * Volume 4 Issue 1 *
Biodiesel TechNotes are published on a quarterly basis by the Department of Biological and Agricultural
Engineering at the University of Idaho. ** * Contact **
throat lining and digestive system. It is therefore imperative to wear
protective equipment such as full-face shields, a respirator and
impervious protective clothing when working with these products.
Mix materials in a closed nitrogen-blanketed tank in a well-ventilated area. Empty containers may contain dust or solid residues
that can be hazardous. Store the material in a tightly closed
container in a cool, dry, well-ventilated area away from sources
of heat and moisture. Combustion of methylates will generate
toxic fumes. In the case of fire, do not use water or foam. Use dry
chemical, soda ash, lime or sand or withdraw from the area and let
the fire burn.
First Aid for Strong Bases: Call 911
Inhalation: Move victim to fresh air. If not breathing, give artificial respiration.
Ingestion: Do not induce vomiting, give large quantities of milk
or water unless unconscious.
Skin Contact: Flush with plenty of water immediately for at least
15 minutes and remove contaminated clothing.
Eye Contact: Immediately flush with water at least 15 minutes,
lifting the eyelids occasionally.
Strong Acids such as Sulfuric and Hydrochloric
Acids are used to treat high free fatty acid feedstocks, neutralize
base catalysts, split soaps in the washing process and to treat the
crude glycerin by-product. They may be colorless and odorless
and extremely corrosive to all body tissues, causing rapid tissue
destruction and serious chemical burns. Their vapors can cause
eye, nose, throat irritation, shortness of breath, pulmonary edema
and a host of other, more serious ailments. Workers should wear
acid resistant protective clothing and gloves, a face shield, and a
respirator where exposure to hazardous levels of mist or fumes are
possible. Store acids in a dry, cool, well-ventilated area away from
alkali. Keep in tightly closed glass or plastic containers, which
are appropriately labeled. If spilled, acids can be neutralized with
alkali such as sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, soda ash,
lime or limestone granules.
Acids can decompose at high temperatures forming toxic gases.
They are non-flammable but react violently with water generating large amounts of heat and may spatter. If diluting with water,
always add the acid to water; never add water to the acid. Acids
can react with combustible materials to generate heat and ignition. They also react with most metals, particularly when diluted
with water, to form flammable hydrogen gas, which may create
an explosion hazard. If fire does occur, use carbon dioxide or dry
chemical extinguishers. Use water spray only if absolutely necessary to cool fire-exposed containers.
First Aid for Acids: Call 911
Eyes: Immediately flush with water for at least 15 minutes.
Flush under lids by lifting them or rolling eyes. See doctor
Skin: Flush with water. Remove clothing and continue flushing.
Inhalation: Remove to fresh air and restore breathing. Get
medical help.
Ingestion: Do not induce vomiting. Dilute stomach contents by
giving water or milk together with milk of magnesia. Symptoms
of overexposure are tissue damage, respiratory tract damage,
severe eye damage, and blindness.
The process of producing biodiesel should be made as safe as
possible by developing and adhering to a prudent practices safety
protocol plan for each facility. Accidents can be avoided with
thorough training of personnel and strict adherence to all local,
regional, and national safety regulations. If an accident does occur,
proper remediation protocol should be in place to effectively deal
with any situation to minimize the extent of the loss.
Do’s and Don’ts
• Do know your equipment.
• Do wear safety glasses over your eyes, especially when
working with chemicals.
• Do know where your first aid supplies are located.
• Do display and know where your MSDS sheets are
• Do have an eye wash and chemical shower station readily
• Do formulate a safety plan and follow the protocol.
• Do know where all the shut offs are to your equipment.
• Do properly mark your exits with signs and always know
when to execute your exit plan.
• Do use nitrogen blanketing on all tanks that hold methanol
or mixtures of methanol with other materials.
• Do make sure all electrical equipment used for biodiesel
processing are rated for hazardous environments. (Class
I, Division I).
• When using a forklift, travel with the forks high enough
off the ground to not spark any materials left on the
• Don’t allow smoking or smoking materials in/on the
biodiesel plant premises.
• Don’t allow food or drink in the plant or laboratory areas.
Employers should provide an appropriate break room.
• Don’t weld, grind, or cut on tanks that contain or have
contained combustible liquids.
For reference sources see:
Biodiesel Production Workshops
March 11- 14, 2008; Moscow, Idaho
To register:
Idaho Oilseed Conference
Februrary 27, 2008; Moscow, Idaho
For information contact: Donn Thill:
Biodiesel TechNotes are published on a quarterly basis by the Department of Biological and Agricultural
Engineering at the University of Idaho. ** * Contact **