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  • Freon?

    Posted by Dan from Madison on November 9th, 2008 (All posts by )

    The Russian Navy has had another horrible accident aboard a submarine.  Some 20 sailors have died and many others were “poisoned”.  It is very difficult from the article to tell why.  From the article:

    The deaths were caused by a Freon gas leak that occurred when the fire-control system was activated yesterday, according to a preliminary investigation by the Russian Prosecutor’s Office, Vesti reported, citing Vladimir Markin, spokesman for the Prosecutor’s investigative committee.

    Huh?  I don’t know a lot about submarine construction, but I do know a lot about “Freon”.  Freon is a trade name used by the DuPont corporation for refrigerants.  There are many different types of refrigerants, and “Freon” doesn’t describe which one.  Most refrigerants that are commonly used in refrigeration and air conditioning applications are non flammable and very low in toxicity.  I can see how people in the sub would suffer greatly if a large refrigerant leak occurred, as there is only so far refrigerant can go in such a small space.  But you would think a modern sub would have some sort of way to replace their air with stored oxygen.

    Lastly, modern refrigerants operate under pressure, and are closed systems.  How did a faulty fire control system rupture a refrigerant line? 

    It may be a poor translation of an article originally in Russian (too bad I don’t have it or Tatyana or John Jay could take a look at it) or just the Russian news service providing scarce details provided them by the Russian Navy.  Any way you slice it, the article makes little to no sense.

    I feel for the families of the Russian sailors and wish them the best.  I also hope that the Russian navy starts to maintain their sub fleet a little better so I don’t have to keep reading about their sailors losing their lives.


    16 Responses to “Freon?”

    1. david foster Says:

      There’s a discussion of this accident at Neptunus Lex, a site frequented by many Navy people.

    2. Shannon Love Says:

      It sounds as if the sailors were asphyxiated by a halogen fire suppression system. Certainly, there is some mistranslation going on if someone is claiming people suffered toxic effects from freon. Freon (and related chemicals) is used specifically due to its highly inert nature.

    3. Tatyana Says:

      5-min googling (i.e. not sufficient), gives me this explanation:
      – the submarine was not on active duty; the incident happened during the testing, running it for the upcoming State Commission’ test. Victims were, for the most part, not sailors (who are trained to act accordingly in alarm situations), but workers from the docks.
      – the submarines of this class are equipped with two fire-control systems: one is local, uses foam and hoses, for small localized fires. The other is [what they call] chemical, uses some sort of reactive agent called “Khladon 114B2”. [I don’t know what its chemical composition is..that is probably what is called under generic name Freon]It is designed to work in isolated closed spaces and could be started manually from the point-of-fire as well as from the central command.
      -by procedure, everyone on the boat had to have a Personal Breathing Device (PBD), attached to his belt, which they were supposed to use at the sound of alarm. [Presumably the areas of the submarine that are in the fire zone have been automatically mechanically isolated and smoke-sealed at the same time.] Either the alarm didn’t sound, or they didn’t pay attention to it because they assumed it’s a testing alarm. Or the PBDs were not functioning properly.
      -[literal translation of a key sentence]: Freon is used in the fire-suppression system to substitute oxygen from the air to liquidate fire at the isolated point of flame.

      The article lists as the cause of death and injury asphyxiation by Freon.

    4. Dan from Madison Says:

      What a horrible translation on the Bloomberg article, as I assumed. But they are just probably getting it from some other wire service.

    5. Dan from Madison Says:

      David Foster – that is an interesting discussion – I will check in on it later in the week when more people chime in.

    6. Tatyana Says:

      Most likely, it was chain-translation from this, or a similar one.

    7. Charlie (Colorado) Says:

      Probably Halon (bromotriflouromethane) or something similar.

    8. Jason Says:

      I don’t read Russian, but I believe this is a story about the incident from a Russian news source:

    9. xchemist Says:

      IIRC, halon works by reacting with and deactivating the free radicals that are central to the chemical
      reactions in a flame. The concentration of these at any time is small, but the turnover is very fast.
      Eliminating the free radicals shuts down the flame quite dramatically.

    10. James R. Rummel Says:

      I work as a computer operator for mainframes in my paying jobs. Halon fire suppression systems are pretty much standard for places where multi-million dollar computer boxes are installed. I have even been present and in the room when a halon system was used.

      The halon is stored in pressurized tanks, and the pressure in the room spikes when it is released. As you might imagine, this can cause some pain in the ears. The system used while I was present was designed for civilian applications, and was installed in the computer room of an office building. The doors were hardly airtight.

      I can imagine that there could be a fair amount of popped eardrums if a system with greater pressure was used in a sealed compartment, such as on a submarine. Maybe that was why so many people, poorly trained in submarine safety procedures, didn’t use their personal breathing devices. They wouldn’t have heard the alarms, and the pain from the pressure would have kept them from thinking too clearly in the first place.

      I have to agree with everyone who suggested that it was “halon” and not “freon”. Just going on my own experience, it seems to fit.


    11. Anonymous Says:

      Freon 13B1 is also known as Halon 1301 and is used in fire suppression systems.

    12. Me Says:

      Freon 13B1 is also known as Halon 1301 and is used in fire suppression systems.

    13. Robin Goodfellow Says:

      Freon actually refers to a sizeable number of halogenated hydrocarbons. However, a small group of freon compounds used in refrigeration have become synonymous with the name freon. As the post above mentions, some of the chemicals in the freon family are used as firefighting agents.

    14. Helen Says:

      I had a look at a few Russian news sources and they all seem to say the same: it was freon and the testing process was not sanctioned. Not sure what that implies. There will be a discussion in the Duma, apparently, so we may find out more. But I don’t think they have a committee system that can summon experts and question them.

    15. andrewdb Says:

      Back in the day when Freon was still used in car a/c, I remember working on the system and my father had a flame that he used to see if Freon was present – it burned bright green if it was.

      He also said not to stand downwind, as the by-product was phosgene – the nerve gas used in WWI. Using that as a fire supressent might not be a good idea.

    16. John Jay Says:

      Andrewb – Halon is not going to produce phosgene, as its chemical composition is a bit different from the CFCs marketed under the “Freon” label.

      Tat – they seem to have replaced the Khladon 114B2 in that article with “freon”, neither of which is correct (I see the Russian press is still about as tech-savvy and attentive to detail as is ours…).

      I doubt the fire control system was Khladon 114B2, as that is an ethylene derivative used as a refrigerant, not a fire retardant, and is listed in that Russian MSDB as “replaced”.