When you think about the word “explosives,” what do you picture? A bundle of bright red dynamite with some wires? A round, black bomb with a lit fuse? Or is it a suitcase filled technological readouts and a large countdown timer? These are more or less the image of explosives that’s been cultivated by popular media, but you’d be surprised what some explosive substances actually look like.

For example, did you know that, under the right circumstances, the ingredients of your morning cup of coffee can cause massive conflagrations? These events are dust explosions, and understanding them is important to prevent one from happening.

From Dust to Flame

Dust explosions are the result of some basic principles of chemistry. Fire is a chemical reaction that relies on oxygen. The more exposed a material is to oxygen, the easier it gets to set it on fire. You can observe this principle if you compare the speed in which a loose pile of paper strips catches fire as opposed to a solid stack. Tiny particles, such as grains of sugar or coffee creamer, can be more combustible than paper because they are surrounded by air.

The danger of powdered substances exploding is greatest when the particles are in a dust cloud. If an ignition source enters a dust cloud, the tiny particles in the air could combust. This can set off an incredibly fast chain reaction as the heat of a few specks on fire ignites the rest of the particles suspended in the dust cloud. Like all explosions, this will send out a pressurized shockwave. If the dust explosion happened in an enclosed environment rich with particulate substances, the shockwave can launch additional particles into the fire, causing a larger and more powerful secondary explosion.

Particles that can cause dust explosions include some obviously flammable materials, such as tobacco, paper, edible powders (like sugar, flour, and spices), metallic dust, and pigments used in powder coating metals. Many people work around or with these materials, manufacturing or distributing them. The lives of these workers are in danger without knowledge of how to prevent dust explosions.

Dust-Busting Methods

brewed coffee and a coffee filter

Any business that produces large quantities of particulate matter is at risk of dust explosions. If you own or operate such a business, you can prevent them by restricting two of the three things combustion needs: fuel and ignition source.

To control dust particles, the fuel of a dust explosion, schedule regular inspections of your facilities. This can help locate areas where particles can accumulate without observation. Constant cleaning with appropriate vacuum cleaners can also help control the amount of dust in a building. You should also make sure that you’re building is using proper dust collection and filtration systems.

Controlling ignition sources entails inspecting your electrical wirings to make sure no faults can cause sparks. Mechanical friction can generate considerable heat that may start a flame, so monitor and maintain any machinery that produces a lot of it. Ensure that any ignition source you need for your operations is separated from any storage areas for particulate substances.

As dust explosions demonstrate, even the smallest particle can wreak havoc and rain fire. Vigilance is required to prevent any catastrophe. With enough understanding of a safety threat, people can come up with ways to lower the chances of these events from happening.