Follow-Up on the Oopsie at Texas Tech

August 28th, 2010

This week saw lots of great discussion on the Texas Tech explosion.  Chemjobber’s newest post on the matter talks about how much the PI is to blame and links to Jyllian Kemsley’s article on safety practices in explosives research.  (That article was published over two and a half years ago, which is probably why she had first dibs at C&EN on writing the Texas Tech story.)

In all of this discussion, my favorite comment was made by “DN” in this thread on Derek Lowe’s In the Pipeline:

I used to work on explosives detectors on these sorts of government contracts (albeit on the engineering side, not chemistry). Safety is provided by conscientiousness and the plan of work, not by fancy shielding. In particular:

1. Stick to small quantities. Most practical detectors work on microgram scales, and can be characterized from a milligram reservoir. (Nitrates are a general exception for practical reasons.) RESULT: Accidental detonation results in a nasty wound, not the guy behind you being impaled by your ribs.

2. Significant quantities should be dispersed in a porous medium. Most explosives become incapable of detonation when mixed 99:1 with sand. Usually they won’t even burn. RESULT: Safe, and the usual vapor detectors and backscatter spectroscopy detectors work just fine.

3. Use non-fragmenting containers and tools. To pulverize a solid, put it in a plastic bag and massage it between styrofoam blocks. Preferably outdoors, to reduce blast reflection from walls. Mr. Teflon is your friend, because he is squishy and inert. Use earplugs in addition to goggles. RESULT: Injury is reduced to surface burns and blast overpressure. (A ceramic mortar and pestle, I ask you?! That would have resulted in administrative leave where I used to work.)

4. Field workers must be trained! E.g., some laser spectrometers have enough power density to ignite black powder, causing at least one tragedy when a multi-kilogram sample was tested by a poorly trained user. Ditto for flashlamp sample collectors, electrostatic particle samplers, detectors with heated tips, and so forth. If it’s not safe enough for a toddler to play with unattended, don’t point it into a 50 pound drum of TATP.

5. Hire and promote, or at least visit the labs of, people who blow shit up for fun and still have all their fingers. A guy who reloads his own pistol ammunition would have come down on the Cowboy Chemist like a ton of bricks.

This is one of many examples of why chemistry blogs are awesome.  While you probably won’t find this advice in a published book (because of liability concerns), you can find it posted by an anonymous commenter on a chemistry blog.

And while the commenter’s points all seem valid, allow me to make the disclaimer that I am not an expert on explosives, so you should consult bona fide safety resources and experts before you go out and try them.  Kthxbye.

Finally, for no reason other than a connection between “plastic bag” and “explosion”, the commenter’s point #3 made me think back to the explosion that sent me to the hospital for five days as a sophomore in college.  During a lab cleanup, we found a sandwich baggy filled with a powder and labeled only with a Post-It note.  Another student transferred the sample to a waste container and went to wash his hands.  When I came by the area a couple of minutes later, the 4L glass waste jug denotated and one (or more) of the shards went into my neck.  It turned out that the compound in the sandwich bag was a precursor to diazomethane.  Whoever decided to leave it in the cupboard like that was a real nice guy.

7 Responses to “Follow-Up on the Oopsie at Texas Tech”

  1. Chemjobber Says:

    Agree on the comment — the 5th suggestion is particularly obvious to me. I can’t imagine why (when they received this grant), the TTU profs didn’t go to LANL or one of these other gov’t labs and say: what procedures do we need to follow? What equipment do we need to buy?

    Perhaps they did and it didn’t matter to Brown. But I somehow doubt it.

  2. Jyllian Kemsley Says:

    CJ, both PIs involved worked at LLNL and did energetic materials work there before moving to Texas Tech.

  3. David P Says:

    It turned out that the compound in the sandwich bag was a precursor to diazomethane.

    Wow. Nasty. I made diazomethane quite a few times and even after getting quite comfortable doing it, a certain level of respect was always maintained.

    Maybe it is not true of the precursor, but I read that diazomethane itself was fine as long as it was in solution. Still, whenever I told people I was making it, they tended to vacant the immediate area.

  4. Hap Says:

    So the PIs had enough experience with explosives to know how to do things with them safely (at least in theory). Why no blast shields, though? (Did they have other safety equipment present, or did they figure they weren’t going to help, anyway?) I don’t know how well explosives labs monitor their students, but it doesn’t seem like there was enough monitoring in place, because this guy seems hard to miss.

    You can’t prevent stupidity, but you can limit its consequences. At least this guy isn’t working with nerve agents.

  5. CMCguy Says:

    It would seem like common sense but I think PIs should formally preform close out inspections when people depart labs and thereby make sure everything is at least clearly labeled, returned to common stock, or properly disposed. In both start of grad school and post-doc I took over benches and found left behinds I either could not identify or were items that should have been thrown out (i.e. several open LAH cans that were not suitable for intentional reactions as had hard cake over with still active solid underneath discovered when was quenching).

    David P Diazomethane may be somewhat more well behaved when diluted in a solvent but really requires due respect at all times. I am not aware of current practices however the in the old days was commonly co-distilled with ethyl ether so had double whammy potential. It amazes me looking back that we used to keep a 1L bottle CH2N2/Et2O in the frig at all times and really did not comprehend the dangers. I have seen CH2N2 used as larger Kg scales, one used in Et2O akin to lab and was a place that specialized in making explosives for the Military but the best was a Continuous process system that generated controlled quantities in CHCl3 (based on profile was significantly safer) for in situ reaction use. For this latter example although very serious engineering precautions involved the situation was more enhancements to normal plant rather than the total bomb shelter approach of the other facility.

  6. Chemjobber Says:

    Re former occupants of hood space: One time I moved into some hood space and there was a full 500 gram container of AIBN, on the shelf behind my desk. Apparently, the last occupant left it there, 2 years before.

  7. Paul Says:

    I think there’s a 50/50 chance that any hood that you inherit will have a mercury spill somewhere near the back, and a nice puddle of oil down below where the pumps sit.

    Also, congrats to CMCguy for leaving the 100th comment on the blog. (Unless you count deleted spam, in which case it was the 985th comment.)

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