While this might only seem to be of interest to welders, I just learned about a huge nationwide acetylene shortage only because I recently acquired some welding equipment, and looked into getting tanks refilled.

It is nearly impossible (and much more expensive) to get acetylene.

This has not been in the news because ordinary people do not care about welders or the welding industry. It is, however, huge and dramatic news among welders. There was a weak link in the acetylene chain in the form of a chemical known as calcium carbide, and it just so happens that the country’s primary producer of that chemical recently suffered a still-unexplained but catastrophic explosion:

A catastrophic explosion occurred on Monday, March 21 at the Louisville, KY plant of Carbide Industries, LLC (CI). CI, which is the nation’s primary supplier of calcium carbide. This plant has been forced to cease production at this facility and has declared Force Majeure. The disruption of production is expected to last for a significant and indefinite period of time.

Calcium carbide is the raw material used in the generation of acetylene gas, and therefore the implications for industry-wide availability of acetylene are significant. Currently, the only operable calcium carbide plant in North America is the CI plant in Pryor, OK. It is much smaller than the Louisville plant, and is expected to run at capacity to help mitigate the loss of production at Louisville. Aside from generated acetylene, the other sources of acetylene in North America are chemical plants in Taft, LA and Geismar, LA. These chemical streams are already part of the national supply chain, and Geismar has some available production.

John Gant, plant manager of Carbide Industries, says that the efforts in the weeks after the explosion are now focused on transitioning the plant from carbide production to carbide shipping. To fill its orders, the company is bringing in product from Mexico, China, Sweden, and other countries.         – See full news story from Fox41 News

Mysteriously, welding companies have responded not by yelling for more acetylene, but by trying to get their customers to phase out acetylene:

As a result of these developments, we are proactively assisting our customers with a conversion to an alternative fuel. In order to convert to any alternative fuel, there are a few things we must work through together, unless you are already familiar with switching over to alternative fuel equipment. Customers should be aware that a transition will require certain parts of their gas system to be changed – namely the gas cylinder, possibly the regulator, hose and cutting/heating tips used.

Replacing all of that equipment happens to be a very expensive proposition for ordinary working class guys who have to earn a living working with their hands, and I think they are being screwed. It strikes me that they ought to be able to buy acetylene as they have for countless decades. But no. Some uppity-ups from somewhere (most likely holders of MBA degrees) have smelled an opportunity to make money because of a very convenient catastrophe.

Something about this “story” does not pass my smell test. Nor does the way it has been reported. There has been almost zero reporting (other than industry news and bulletin board discussions) on the acetylene shortage, and even the explosion said to cause it was barely reported:

After finally breaching what seemed to be an “Iron Curtain” of silence among current and former employees of Carbide Industries on Bells Lane, Insider Louisville has been able to speak with two people who have direct knowledge about Monday’s incident in which two men were killed in an explosion.

A former Carbide Industries employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Insider Louisville on Wednesday, “It is my understanding they had plans to overhaul that furnace within two to three years. They should not have waited.”

The former employee then added with emphasis: “The place was a ticking time bomb. They constantly had smaller explosions there, you just didn’t hear about them on the news. Maybe if profits were put aside for a minute, those poor souls would still be alive today.”

Carbide Industries is North America’s largest producer of calcium carbide products, according to the company’s website

Calcium carbide is the primary source of acetylene gas used in metal fabrication.

(Click here for a schematic of the facility: 94-0150 Model (1)

The building Carbide operates out of is an old one, having been among the very first to begin operating in the Rubbertown area, an area that was to become the largest producer of synthetic rubber in the world.

Old facilities like the Carbide plant are inherently more hazardous than modern ones.

Carbide Industries’ Louisville location takes raw materials and turns them into calcium carbide by means of super-heating all the ingredients inside of a furnace in which temperatures can reach 3800 degrees Fahrenheit.

One insider told me that Carbide always was and continued to be a “filthy, nasty place to work” up until Monday’s explosion.

Time will tell if the sources are correct in their assessment of the situation. Until then, we should call on all traditional media outlets to stop repeating what they are told in press releases and use their resources to get to the bottom of the story.

As a lowly blogger, I’ll certainly second that, and I hereby call on all traditional media outlets to stop repeating what they are told in press releases and use their resources to get to the bottom of the story. (Riiiight.)

No one cares because this shortage affects only little people who can be screwed with impunity.

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d look at my useless equipment and say, “First, they came for the acetylene….”

AFTERTHOUGHT: Reading the Wiki entry about acetylene makes me wonder how would it be even theoretically possible for such a very common chemical to suddenly become unavailable.

If it can happen with acetylene, why not sugar?