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Many believe using phones at fuel stations causes fire explosions but is this true?

7 mins read

Claim: Using phones in a fuel station or near fuel at home can cause an explosion. 

No, mobile phones cannot cause fire when it comes in contact with fuel except there is a spark 

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Since the introduction of mobile phones to Nigeria, many people believe that using phones at a filling station can cause explosions. Different messages are churned out year after year about the danger of not switching off your phones at filling stations and reasons why phones should not be used in the kitchen.

 A number of news reports had reported cases where use of phones while using the generator had caused a fire explosion. Although there have been no reported cases of mobile phones  causing explosions at fuel stations in Nigeria, there have been some cases in foreign countries.

A filling station

A news report  read, “Tragedy struck in Agege area of Lagos State, South West Nigeria when a staff of Fidelity Bank PLC was burnt to death while trying to switch on a generating set which caught fire when a call came in his GSM handset.

“We gathered that the victim, Mr. David Adeogun, got married not too long ago and had a new baby.

“Investigations revealed that Adeogun, a staff of the Ikosi, Ketu branch of the bank got home after work and wanted to switch on the generating set with the torchlight on his phone when the phone rang, The generating set was said to have exploded immediately when the phone rang. His body, it was learnt.”

There have also been multiple reports, especially YouTube videos that show that mobile phones cause explosions.

Verification

A visit to a number of filling stations shows that many filling stations still express a certain level of caution to prevent fire outbreak or explosion. Some of the safety rules at filling stations reads; ‘No smoking, stop your machine, switch off your phone amongst many others.’

What you need to know about mobile phones and fuel

A mobile phone is a wireless handheld device that allows users to make and receive calls. While the earliest generation of mobile phones could only make and receive calls, today’s mobile phones do a lot more, accommodating web browsers, games, cameras, video players and navigational systems.

Also, while mobile phones used to be mainly known as “cell phones” or cellular phones, today’s mobile phones are more commonly called “smartphones” because of all of the extra voice and data services that they offer.

According to fossbytes.com,there are a myriad number of smartphones available today, it’s all a game of different designs, features, cameras, display quality, performance, battery life and numerous other things that consumers are looking for. However, what goes on beneath these mobile computing machines is equally important because if you’re knowledgeable in this aspect, then you can come close to making a purchasing decision less excruciating down the road.

Components of mobile phones

Major components of a mobile phone includes

A circuit board containing the brains of the phone

An antenna

A liquid crystal display (LCD)

A keyboard (not unlike the one you find in a TV remote control)

A microphone

A speaker

A battery

Petroleum, or crude oil according to petroleum.co.uk, as it is now usually referred to when raw, contains several chemical compounds, the most prolific being the hydrocarbons themselves which give the petroleum composition its combustible nature.

Petroleum Composition

Although the composition of petroleum will contain many trace elements the key compounds are carbon (93% – 97%), hydrogen (10% – 14%), nitrogen (0.1% – 2%), oxygen (01.% – 1.5%) and sulphur (0.5% – 6%) with a few trace metals making up a very small percentage of the petroleum composition.

The actual overall properties of each different petroleum source are defined by the percentage of the four main hydrocarbons found within petroleum as part of the petroleum composition.

The percentages for these hydrocarbons can vary greatly, giving the crude oil a quite distinct compound personality depending upon geographic region. These hydrocarbons are typically present in petroleum at the following percentages: paraffins (15% – 60%), napthenes (30% – 60%), aromatics (3% to 30%), with asphaltics making up the remainder.

Over the years, there have been controversies around whether the use of mobile phones cause fire explosions at filling stations or while pouring fuel in the generator at home. 

Many messages have gone viral on various social media platforms stating why using phones while in contact with petrol can ;lead to fire explosions. 

However, a quick check by The Punch, revealed that there is no direct link between usage of phone and fire when one is near a fuel or filling station. 

Using phone close to fuel cannot cause fire -Experts

In a phone interview with The Punch, a professor of Communication Engineering, Prof Francis Idachabba, explained that there is no direct link between phones causing fire explosions at filling stations while pouring fuel in the generator. 

He said, “It’s not likely that a fire would happen while using your phone at a filling station. An explosion won’t happen unless there is a contact between the fuel and fire” 

Debunking the myths that when phones get too hot it might cause a fire,  the professor said, “The manufacturers have specifications. For mobile phones to generate so much power to the extent that it would cause fire in a petrol station is a claim that is unfounded.

“The technology for phones and fuel are very different. They are on separate arcs. Nobody has shown any proof that  using a mobile phone at a filling station can cause it.Technically too from the place I am seeing it, the relationships are very far apart.”

Idachaba stated that if phones could exhibit such a level of danger, the manufacturers wouldn’t have allowed it in the marketplace. 

He stated, “ Most of these devices are ensured not to cause these things. If phones have the capacity to cause explosions like that, I am sure the use of the phone will be limited and such precautions would have been given by the manufacturers.All these are presumptions that have not been validated to the best of my knowledge.” 

Talking about fire explosions while using the generator, the engineering don said that it was important to observe the condition with which the fire explosion happened.

Idachaba stated, “It is important to note the condition which the generator was in rather than just generalising. Was the generator on  while they were pouring the fuel inside the generator? Because if the generator is on it will be hot and petrol and heat are not very friendly.  And that is why you are usually told not to switch on your engine while topping it up.

“For the generator, it should be switched off and allowed to cool off before the fuel is poured inside because the exhaust is usually very hot. But to suggest that using a phone as a torchlight to pour fuel in the generator would cause a fire is very unlikely.” 

Idachabba said that for a phone that is not in use to generate heat that could cause an explosion is almost impossible just as it is still not likely when in use. 

He stated, “When you  are holding your phone and not making a call, it does nothing. What happens while using your phone is what we call status update,  the updates are sent from the phone to the nearest GPS intermediately.

“To say that a phone that is not in will cause a fire is a little far-fetched, it should not. This is engineering but except the conditions that can make room for such.

“But, I have not seen and there is no empirical fact to show that using a phone torchlight while pouring fuel in the generator will cause fire. I haven’t seen that before. It is not straightforward like that but there are chances that it can happen under certain conditions.”

In the same vein, an oil and gas analyst, Bala Zakk,a also explained the components of fuel and the process of distillation while analysing if phones were capable of causing fuel at fire stations. 

He said, “When we talk about crude oil generally , we are talking about fossil fuels. During distillation for refining,they come out based on their specific gravity or weight. And when these products start coming out based on their weight or gravity. The lighter the product, the more flammable it becomes. 

“In other words, gas is lighter than petrol,petrol is lighter than diesel and kerosene while they are lighter than Bitumen. The lighter the products, the more inflammable  or dangerous it would be when it comes close to a source of fire. 

“That is why when you see a case of gas tanker fire it is more deadly than that of petrol and petrol is more dangerous than that of diesel and kerosine. When you talk about these petroleum product, the only thing that will generate friction between them is friction that would generate light not electricity

“Electricity is different from the kind of light that will generate flame. It is different from a friction that generates heat that would produce a flame. So, there is no relation between using a phone and causing a fire at a fuel station.” 

The petroleum analyst said that there was however a slim chance if there was a spark from the electricity which could generate fire.

Zakka added, “However, a spark from the phone as a result of electrical charges can cause flame and when you have a source of gas, petrol or other products depending on how flammable they are,  then you can have an explosion. Fuel and phones are two different products, phones can’t  cause fire. 

“Phones function based on what we know as electrical charges, the electrical charges don’t generate normal flames but when there is a spark, like when you put two batteries together and it produces a spark, then we can have a flame. 

“A car battery is a good example, a car battery does not cause fire, it powers a car to move but when you now put the heads of a battery together, it would generate a spark. If there is no source of generating a spark, then a phone can never generate a spark that would cause fire. 

“What is being done at the filling station is a case that I will call prevention is better and cheaper than cure.  It is better to prevent it than look for medicine to cure it after the explosion.” 

Conclusion

Using phones near petrol and other petroleum products does not cause fire as opposed to the general belief but there is a likelihood if there is an electrical spark. 

The researcher produced this fact-check per the Dubawa 2021 Kwame KariKari Fellowship partnership with Punch.ng to facilitate the ethos of “truth” in journalism and enhance media literacy in the country.

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