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Explosion at Groveton lab causes brief panic

by Tara Giles
Sports reporter - Coos County Democrat and Berlin Reporter

An explosion triggered by vegetable oil caused a fire at the Prima America Plastics lab in Groveton on the morning of April 24. (Photo by Tara Giles) (click for larger version)
May 02, 2018
GROVETON — An explosion had residents in Groveton on edge on Tuesday, April 24 after several fire trucks were seen flying through town. The Prima America plastics to diesel plant was in flames after an experiment took a wrong turn.

Apparently, engineers were in the test lab performing an experiment with vegetable oil when things went south. Fortunately, all safety protocols were in place according to Rick Perry, an Engineer Technician at the lab.

Perry explained what caused the explosion.

"We take plastic here and make diesel fuel out of it. Plastic is 94 percent petroleum, so we try to recover the petroleum and in the process we make diesel fuel out of it," he elaborated.

Perry said that there are labs in Japan and Italy that are doing it too, adding that "It's a new process, and if it works, we can take all the plastic out of landfills and reuse it for fuel."

This experiment is in its beginning phases, even though it has been in the works for the past six years.

Perry said, "We've had really good outcomes, but now are trying to make it a continuous process instead of doing it in batches. If we can figure out how to make fuel day in and day out someone will be very rich."

Perry knew the temperature was reaching dangerous levels, and that's when he threw a nitrogen blanket over the machine to try to bring the temperature down. Apparently a release malfunctioned although this was just speculation at the time.

"Once the oil hit oxygen, it ignited, then once it got into the insulation, it just grew from there." Perry said.

The men in the lab kept the fire at bay as best they could with the small extinguishers they had on hand. After dialing 911, it took crews 20 minutes to reach the scene. The first department to show up was the Whitefield Fire Department.

"Luckily, the sprinkler system kicked in; we had all of our safety systems in play. We shut down our electrical system, as well as the experiment and killed the propane going in to our building. We continued to fight the fire until the crews showed up," said Perry.

In hindsight, Perry said, they will purchase larger fire extinguishers. The test room and the test unit were the only parts in the large building that were damaged. No one was injured in the blaze.

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