Understanding the Causes of Pressure Vessel Explosions

explosion of pressure vessels

Common Causes of Pressure Vessel Explosions

Pressure vessel explosions can have catastrophic consequences, leading to loss of life, extensive property damage, and serious environmental impacts. Understanding the causes of these explosions is vital for prevention. Here are the primary causes:


This is the most straightforward cause. If a vessel is subjected to internal pressures exceeding its design limits, it can rupture.

  • Inadequate Pressure Relief: Pressure relief devices, like safety valves or rupture discs, are designed to release excess pressure. If these devices are faulty, improperly sized, or absent, overpressurization can occur.
  • Blocked Outlets: If an outlet from the vessel becomes blocked, pressure can build up, especially in systems where the content is being heated or where chemical reactions are occurring inside.

Material Failure

The structural integrity of the vessel can be compromised over time or due to manufacturing defects.

  • Corrosion: Over time, the internal or external surfaces of a pressure vessel can corrode, thinning the walls and weakening the structure.
  • Fatigue: Repeated cycles of pressurization and depressurization can lead to fatigue, where microscopic cracks form and grow, leading to eventual failure.
  • Brittle Fracture: Some materials can become brittle under specific conditions, especially at low temperatures. A brittle material is much less ductile and can shatter suddenly under pressure.
  • Flawed Design or Manufacturing: Inherent defects from the manufacturing process or design flaws can introduce weak points in the vessel.

External Factors

  • Fires: External fires can heat the contents of a vessel, causing them to expand. If the vessel cannot relieve the pressure or is not designed for the elevated temperatures, it may explode.
  • Impact or Damage: Physical damage to the vessel, such as from an impact or collision, can weaken its structural integrity.
  • Foundation Failures: If the supports or foundation of a pressure vessel fail, the vessel can fall or tip, leading to structural damage and potential explosion.

Rapid Phase Change

Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion (BLEVE): This occurs when a liquid inside the vessel is above its boiling point at atmospheric pressure. If the vessel ruptures, the liquid can rapidly boil and expand, resulting in a significant explosion. This is common in vessels containing liquefied gases.

Uncontrolled Chemical Reactions

If reactive chemicals are stored or mixed within a pressure vessel, an uncontrolled reaction can generate gas and rapidly increase the internal pressure, leading to an explosion.

Operator Error or Lack of Training

Misunderstandings, lack of proper training, or human errors can lead to conditions that result in an explosion. For instance, accidentally overfilling a vessel or misinterpreting instrumentation can lead to dangerous scenarios.

Instrumentation and Control Failure

Failures in control systems, sensors, or alarms can lead to undetected hazardous conditions within the vessel.

Given the severe implications of pressure vessel explosions, rigorous standards and regular inspections are mandated in many countries. Proper design, quality materials, routine maintenance, operator training, and safety protocols are all essential components in preventing such disasters.

Ageing Infrastructure

As with any industrial equipment, pressure vessels have a finite lifespan. Even with regular maintenance, the wear and tear from years of operation can make older vessels more susceptible to failure. Regular inspections become even more critical for ageing infrastructure to assess and ensure continued safe operation.

Improper Modifications or Repairs

Unauthorized or improperly executed modifications can weaken the pressure vessel or create unforeseen vulnerabilities. For instance, drilling into the vessel for additional nozzles, making weld repairs without proper procedures, or using incompatible materials can all compromise the vessel’s integrity.

Temperature Extremes

Extreme temperatures, whether high or low, can have detrimental effects on materials:

  • Thermal Shock: Rapid temperature changes can introduce thermal stresses in the material, potentially leading to failure.
  • Low-Temperature Embrittlement: Some materials become brittle and lose their ductility when cooled to very low temperatures, increasing the risk of a sudden, catastrophic failure under pressure.

Inadequate Inspection Regimes

Routine inspections can identify potential issues before they lead to failure. However, inadequate, infrequent, or poorly executed inspections might miss critical signs of impending failure, such as thinning walls, corrosion, or developing cracks.

Vibration and Dynamic Loading

Constant vibration, either from internal processes or external sources, can lead to fatigue failures. The repeated stresses from vibrations can initiate and propagate cracks more rapidly.

Mismatched Materials and Welds

If repairs or modifications use materials that don’t match the vessel’s original material or if the welding procedure is inappropriate, there can be zones of weakness. These weak points can have different thermal expansion rates or may corrode preferentially, leading to potential failure points.

The prevention of pressure vessel explosions is a multifaceted challenge requiring a thorough understanding of both the inherent properties of the vessel and the external factors it may encounter. Rigorous design and fabrication standards, combined with regular inspections, proper maintenance, and operator training, are vital to ensuring the safety of these vessels and their surrounding environments. Investing in safety measures, both proactive and reactive, can save lives, protect investments, and maintain the reputation of industries that rely on pressure vessels.

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Red River specializes in the design and manufacturing of pressure vessels. We also fabricate related items such as prefabricated spools and skid packages.

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FAQ: Understanding Pressure Vessel Explosions

1. What are the primary causes of pressure vessel explosions?

Pressure vessel explosions are primarily caused by a failure in managing the internal pressure, often due to overpressure, corrosion, or material defects. Overpressure can occur from a failure in pressure relief systems or from unexpected chemical reactions inside the vessel. Corrosion weakens the vessel walls, making them more susceptible to failure under pressure. Material defects, either from manufacturing errors or degradation over time, can also lead to catastrophic failures.

2. How does improper maintenance lead to pressure vessel explosions?

Improper maintenance is a significant factor in pressure vessel explosions. Regular maintenance is crucial for detecting early signs of wear, corrosion, or damage. Neglecting maintenance can lead to undetected issues like thinning walls, cracks, or faulty valves, which compromise the vessel’s integrity and increase the risk of an explosion.

3. Can external factors contribute to pressure vessel failures?

Yes, external factors like environmental conditions, physical damage from external sources, or operational errors can contribute to pressure vessel failures. For instance, exposure to extreme temperatures can weaken the vessel material. Physical impacts can cause dents or deformations that compromise structural integrity. Operational errors, such as incorrect handling or exceeding the designed pressure limits, can also lead to failures.

4. What role does design flaw play in pressure vessel explosions?

Design flaws can be a critical factor in pressure vessel explosions. If a vessel is not designed to accommodate the specific type of pressure, temperature, or chemical reactions expected in its use, it can fail. This includes inadequate sizing of pressure relief systems, improper material selection, or failure to account for potential chemical interactions within the vessel.

5. How important is the quality of materials used in preventing pressure vessel explosions?

The quality of materials used in pressure vessels is paramount in preventing explosions. Materials must be chosen based on their strength, corrosion resistance, and suitability for the intended contents and operating conditions of the vessel. Substandard or inappropriate materials can lead to rapid degradation, corrosion, and ultimately, failure of the vessel under pressure.


In the realm of industrial solutions, Red River emerges as a pioneer, offering a diverse range of custom-engineered products and facilities. Among our specialties is the design and production of Custom/OEM Pressure Vessels, meticulously crafted to meet individual client requirements, ensuring performance under various pressure conditions. Our expertise extends to the domain of prefabrication, where Red River leads with distinction.

The company excels in creating prefabricated facilities, modules, and packages, reinforcing its stance as a forerunner in innovation and quality. This proficiency is further mirrored in their Modular Skids offering, where they provide an array of Modular Fabricated Skid Packages and Packaged equipment. Each piece is tailored to client specifications, underlining their commitment to delivering precision and excellence in every project they undertake.

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