Bree Street gas explosion raises many questions

Following a gas explosion that damaged about five blocks of Bree street in the Joburg CBD the area is fenced off and assessment work proceeds. Picture: Timothy Bernard, African News Agency (ANA)

Following a gas explosion that damaged about five blocks of Bree street in the Joburg CBD the area is fenced off and assessment work proceeds. Picture: Timothy Bernard, African News Agency (ANA)

Published Jul 26, 2023


I am not a bomb nor an explosives expert, but what I can't tell you is that the Bree Street explosion could not be a gas explosion. Something bigger took place, and the authorities are not telling us the truth. The Bree Street explosion has the makings of a bomb-related explosion, which is not gas related.

The Bree Street explosion should not be treated lightly and passed off as a mere gas leak explosion. The City, in particular, needs to conduct a proper independent investigation into the causes of the explosion.

The early reports suspected a gas leak connected to a series of Egoli Gas pipelines that run through Bree Street, connecting the entire Central Business District (CBD) of Johannesburg. And Egoli Gas has since dismissed those claims in several media statements.

However, officials at the City of Johannesburg later said there was an old active municipal gas line, which they believed, but could not confirm, that caused the explosion.

So let us examine closely what took place in the Bree Street explosion. A loud, explosive bang took place, completely destroying everything in its way. The entire area of the street exploded into pieces, causing a rupture and destruction of the tar road entirely.

The explosion happened in milliseconds, lifting and damaging everything in its way, especially cars which were in the Bree Street area of the explosion. The tar road cracked while exploding into pieces, with huge gaping holes and cracks in the ground causing road openings. Cars, particularly minibus taxis, were blown up into the air, some rolling off onto the sides of the road.

Gas is highly explosive and flammable. Gas can leak and leak continuously, even to evaporation, without ever exploding until ignited. Gas easily evaporates in open air and ventilated environments.

Generally, gas is used as a substitute for electricity. It burns more efficiently, and it is regarded as a clean source of energy, depending on the gas source used. When planning to transition from dirty energy, gas becomes an obvious substitute alternative for heating and cooking.

Gas is also highly explosive and flammable. Here is a practical example of gas used in small, insignificant doses causing gas explosions. How one would one ask? When you ordinarily use your gas stove or a heater, lighting it causes small controllable doses of explosions.

This is practically how a gas lighting process happens: gas will flow from its cylinder through the pipe into the burner, and a small explosion takes place due to the lighting of the gas through ignition. It first explodes into a small, controllable flame, and the gas burns off until it is switched off.

But there was no fire, no emergency shut off of the gas pipelines in the area. There were no gas pressure losses in the network. So what really happened in the Bree Street explosion?

Bear in mind that a gas explosion of that magnitude would have definitely caused a huge flaming explosion into a massive fire and possibly burning off anything in its way. There was no fire flaming into the air and no huge gas fire burning explosion.

Don't forget the 2020 Lebanon Gas explosion incident that wiped off a massive city area of Beirut, causing massive damage to infrastructure in the process. In the Beirut case, a gas storage tanks and a gas tanker exploded.

So how did Bree Street's supposed gas explosion occur without there being a fire explosion, which would have resulted in explosive flames engulfing and burning off anything its way?

History of gas

Let me transport you to an ancient world of wonders when most of the energy technology and innovation we enjoy today was non-existent or, at infancy and experimental stages, a world where some of the scientific energy breakthroughs didn't exist.

It took hundreds of years for some of the leading innovations and technology to come into existence. We take for granted the availability of electricity as a basic human need and right. Picture a time when non of the modern technology and sciences existed, a time when everything as we know it today didn't exist more than 400 years ago.

The use of gas for lighting was discovered accidentally, and common forms of energy and lighting were derived from the use of waxes and oils. So when the energy technology to distil coal in order to create gas from coal was discovered, it became a revolutionary achievement. The use of lights in an everyday manner improved almost all forms of life. From literacy, industrial development and human civilization leapt into the 2nd Industrial Revolution.

The first place in England to have gas street light lamps was Cornwall in 1792 and 1798, followed by Soho Foundry in London. The main driver for switching to the use of coal gas light lighting was due to the fact that gas lights cost less than 75% of the use of oil lamps and candles at the time.

Gas in South Africa

South Africa is a highly interesting case study. A gas network was built for industrial purposes and town lighting. In the late 1800, around 1891, the first gas lighting street lights were installed in Johannesburg street in the heart of the town Egoli, the city of gold. Gas street lights pioneered the introduction of street lighting innovation and technology.

The company that was responsible for the lights was the President Street Gas Works company, then the Johannesburg Gas Works company, later changed to Egoli Gas.

Egoli Gas today operates a 1200km of piped natural gas pipeline network throughout Johannesburg, covering the CBD, Sandton, Linbro Park, Denver, Cleveland, Elands Park, Booysens, Robertsham, Robertsville, Maraisburg, Northcliff and Randburg.

Gas today

Energy has evolved into many streams since the days of coal gas lighting for street lights. The basic uses of energy are still primarily for heating, cooking, cooling and industrial use.

Gas industries today in South Africa include natural gas; liquefied petroleum gas; air conditioning and refrigeration gas; compressed industrial and medical gases.

To transition to green energy technologies, gas will play a much bigger significant role. Don't be shocked to learn that coal and gas are used to produce solar wafers for solar panels.

The process of producing solar wafers to their highest purity of (99.9999999% purity), an almost defect-free single crystalline material, gas diffusion is used in the refinery process in a high-heat furnace. No solar battery, no silicon chip sets maker, laptops and pcs, no electric vehicle maker can produce anything without gas.

None of the technologies prevalent today would be possible without the use of multiple gas technologies.

The future of energy generation and storage will be derived from gas-fired power plants and gas-related technologies such as hydrogen gas technology.

South Africa must work fast to embrace gas Industrialisation strategy and gas for energy generation and gas as an energy substitute alternative. With the evolution of technology into battery storage, gas will play a far bigger role in the future.

Crown Prince Adil Nchabeleng is President of Transform RSA and an Independent Energy Expert.