Trail’s Ron Nutini is a licensed automotive technician and graduate of mechanical engineering from UBC. E-mail: nutechauto@telus.net.

What happens when a vehicle drives through acid?

Nutini writes about the acid spill in Trail and the panic associated with it

Armageddon, Hot House Earth, wildfires in BC, State of emergency, acid spill in Trail.

Seems as if the sky is falling. Do we just put our heads in the sand? Do we just pass on the rumors and innuendo?

Fake news?

All this bad news just seems blown a little out of proportion. One of these topics has really got my attention. Yep, you guessed it, the acid spill in Trail and the panic associated with it.

What happens to a vehicle that drives through spilled sulphuric acid? I have been researching this topic ad nauseum. The answers are far from clear.

I guess that is what instills a lot of fear.

The acid spilled from the tanker truck was likely 98 per cent concentrated sulphuric acid. The reported total amount was 80 litres spread between Teck and Waneta once and Teck and Shavers Bench the other time. The temperature of the acid is kept below 35 degrees Celsius in the stainless steel tanker truck.

At this concentration and temperature the sulphuric acid (H2SO4) is a colorless or slightly yellow viscous liquid with a pungent odor. If you drove through it right when it came from the tanker truck it would have been like driving through oil.

From what I understand the acid was spilling out one side of the tanker truck and would not have been covering the whole road. It would have been a narrow long line.

The emergency response to an acid spill is putting up a neutralizing barrier to contain the acid.

Sodium bicarbonate, yes, baking soda is the neutralizer of choice but there are others depending on the type of spill. Definitely not water.

Once contained the neutralizer is mixed into the acid until the mixture becomes a slurry of sorts that is no longer reactive (reaches a pH closer to that of water). I am not sure what kind or format of neutralizer they used on the Trail spill. Once neutralized the material is put in containers and removed from the scene.

The timing and vicinity of these spills meant a lot of people drove their vehicle through some concentrated sulphuric acid.

I assume the acid would have been thrown up onto the side and bottom of the vehicles. Most of the splash due to the viscous nature of the acid would have been right behind the wheels and into the wheel wells.

The wheel wells and underside of your vehicle are made up of a mixture of materials with various coatings, etc.

Some of these materials; plastics, and plastic coatings are not susceptible to corrosion from the acid. Other materials like cast iron, steel and aluminum are very susceptible to corrosion from the acid.

The painted surfaces would also likely suffer some damage. The effect of the acid on your rubber tires I am not sure of. I could not find any science on the rubber tire subject.

After drying any acid left on the vehicle becomes a sulphate which is a salt similar to the salt we use to melt snow on the highway. We all know those salts in the presence of moisture corrode our vehicles.

The sooner we wash or scrub those salts off our vehicles the longer they will last.

I look under vehicles for a living. Safety inspections are what every client expects from their mechanic. I must say I have been looking more closely at vehicles. In fact I have been looking at every vehicle I possibly can especially vehicles that may have driven through the acid.

Unfortunately people who never looked under a car in their lives are now declaring severe acid corrosion on parts that they have no idea what their typical appearance is.

There are a lot of steel parts under vehicles that are rusty from day one. That is the way they were designed to age. Your vehicle was not designed to last forever.

I can easily agree to the fact that when a vehicle has driven through the acid there probably will be some level of increased corrosion but not at all likely catastrophic unless the vehicle was close to failure in the beginning.

Trail’s Ron Nutini is a licensed automotive technician and graduate of mechanical engineering from UBC. E-mail: nutechauto@telus.net

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