How Can Sugar Explode?

Explosion at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Georgia
Sugar dust is believed to have caused this explosion at the Imperial Sugar refinery in Georgia in February 2008. See more building explosion images.
Stephen Morton/AP Photo

The cobwebs have hardly cleared from your mind as the refrigerator door swings lazily shut and you sit down at the breakfast table. The coffee is still brewing, and you're hardly alert. You read the paper as you pour your whole grain cereal into your bowl, top it with milk, and ladle on heaping spoonfuls of refined sugar. As you retrieve the last bit of sugar from the bowl, the spoon clinks against the side of the porcelain and — BOOM?

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Sound like an outrageous fabrication? It is. But what's crazy is that sugar actually can be dangerous; not to the consumer, but to the people who operate the refinery.

­The little-known danger associated with refining sugar came suddenly into international focus on Feb. 7, 2008, when the Imperial Sugar Company refinery in Port Wentworth, Ga., suddenly and violently exploded. Fire officials believe that an accumulation of sugar dust within the refinery ignited and caused the incident [source: CNN].

Georgia Fire Commissioner John Oxendine called the blast "the worst industrial accident" in the 14 years of his tenure [source: Reuters]. Indeed, the explosion was massive. The blast tore away entire sections of the huge refinery, exposing the steel girders and concrete slabs that make up the skeleton and foundation of the plant. Seven workers were killed in the blast and resulting fire. Twenty employees were treated for severe burns; 17 of those were kept in medically induced comas [source: Houston Business Journal].

Sugar dust? How exactly can sugar explode, let alone kill six people and tear apart thousands of tons of steel and concrete? Find out what we learned about sugar explosions on the next page.