Officials with Westwin Elements addressed two major concerns about their project Monday: safety controls within the plant and the danger of contamination outside.
The short version: designs will keep the nickel carbonyl created by the refining process within the plant. But even if the gas does escape the plant, it decomposes quickly, meaning limited danger to the air and people outside the building and none at all to groundwater.
The discussion and answers to questions came during a town hall meeting held by Westwin and members of the local entities involved in the project: The City of Lawton, Comanche County Industrial Development Authority and Lawton Economic Development Authority. About half of the two-hour town hall centered on the process that transforms raw materials into nickel carbonyl then into powder, the material that Westwin CEO KaLeigh Long said is a crucial component of things ranging from cell phones and electric car batteries to fighter jets.
Those issues have drawn concern and criticism from some residents who have begun a petition drive asking entities to back away from the pilot plant project and, potentially, a full-scale commercial refinery, because of risks.
The bulk of the explanation about the process came from Xavier Wong, Westwin’s vice president of technology. Wong has worked in the carbonyl industry and holds a bachelor of engineering degree in chemical engineering.
Wong described the process to create nickel carbonyl as “one fundamental reaction,” a process that adds carbon monoxide to nickel to form nickel carbonyl, a gas then transformed back to an extremely pure powder (99.9 percent). He said it is a process that has been used since 1904, and one that doesn’t rely on liquid: solids are transformed to gas, then converted back to solid (powder).
He said the materials are fed into a contained vessel where the nickel carbonyl is formed, a gas that carries nickel with it. That gas is moved to another reactor (in this use, meaning a confined box where a reaction occurs), where exposure to 450 degrees — “oven temperature,” Wong said — turns it to powder.
He noted several characteristics of nickel carbonyl, including one that many residents have asked about: while nickel carbonyl is dangerous, it also breaks down in 1 to 3 minutes when exposed to air. The gas needs to be contained and controlled for several reasons, Wong said.
And that plays into the steps the plant’s designers will take to control the danger. Wong said in basic form, the refining process only occurs in sealed vessels, and the plant is built around those vessels. Acknowledging that “no system is ever prefect,” Wong said the entire plant will be under negative air pressure, with fans used to ensure no air is released outside the facility. All doors into the plant have monitors, a duplication seen throughout the plant, with monitors calculated to measure nickel carbonyl to within 1 part per billion. An alarm system tracks leaks and responds accordingly when leaks are detected.
Wong said when a leak is detected, all air is passed through a thermal oxidizer that provides heat of 1,100 degrees.
“It cooks it,” Wong said, adding that temperature is more than twice what is needed to break down nickel carbonyl.
The facility also has a system that automatically shuts down all operations when levels of 4 parts per billion are detected, with alarms sounding when that reading reaches more than 2 parts per billion.
Plant design will ensure layers of protection, said John Shelegey, Westwin’s vice president of operations. Shelegey said the plant will be built to tornado standards, withstanding winds of 130 mph and if an Act of God event damages the plant, the “volumes of gas will not impact the community.”
Wong and Shelegey emphasized that nickel carbonyl decomposes rapidly, limiting the effects it might have on the outside environment. And, Wong said there is no danger to groundwater because nickel carbonyl “doesn’t mix with water.”
“It’s not possible to enter the groundwater system,” he said.