Explosion at U. Maryland: Another Nitric Acid Oopsie

October 2nd, 2011

Photo credit: Mark E. Brady, PGFD

Earlier this week, something went wrong in the sophomore orgo lab (CHEM 242 class) at the University of Maryland, and two students were injured in an explosion+fire. The details (and pictures) were almost immediately posted to the PG County Fire Department’s Web site.

The fire department announced that the cause of the accident was the addition of a nitric/sulfuric acid mixture into an (organic?) waste container. Jyllian Kemsley[1] of C&EN interviewed UMD chemistry department chairman Michael Doyle, who had a slightly different story. He believes the accident was the result of adding the nitric acid to a bottle with an organic reagent in it (not necessarily a waste container).

Mitch has raised this issue before, but it is worth repeating…If you are teaching orgo lab and your students are using nitric acid in high concentrations, you must Must MUST tell them to be careful that the HNO3 does not come into contact with the acetone or other oxidizable solvents you’ve given them to wash their glassware. You had also better label the organic waste bottles that day with a warning that adding HNO3 will cause the bottle to explode.

[1] Incidentally, I am a huge Jyllian Kemsley fan. C&EN‘s safety beat writer has done a phenomenal job covering safety issues in academic research, including the tragic case of Sheri Sangji at UCLA and the jaw-dropping idiocy of Preston Brown at Texas Tech. Kemsley runs a blog, the Safety Zone, on C&EN‘s Web site. It is the place to go for news pertinent to chemical safety.

8 Responses to “Explosion at U. Maryland: Another Nitric Acid Oopsie”

  1. qvxb Says:

    Paul, I’m in total agreement with your comments about Jyllian Kemsley and her blog The Safety Zone. I encourage those who haven’t read it to check it out.

  2. Hap Says:

    I don’t know what to do with waste bottles, but they seem to be a source of problems. In a synthetic chem lab for undergrads, in grad school, one of the TAs poured some of the waste solvent from cutting sodium for a Birch reduction into the waste jar. It wasn’t very full, but when flames came out the spout, we kind of noticed. If there had been more solvent (or more flammable solvent) it could have been a problem.

  3. Another explosion at Texas Tech and a fire at UCLA | The Safety Zone Says:

    […] still investigating that. But, as we saw last month at the University of Maryland and others have noted, nitric acid is a strong oxidizing agent and will react with organic compounds. Prudent Practices […]

  4. hazardous waste Long Beach Says:

    Chemical bottles should be labeled properly. Aside from that, safety precautions should be informed to everyone so that accident would not occur. Doing this things would be very beneficial because it can save many lives.

  5. ChemBark » Blog Archive » The 2011 Chemmy Award Winners, Part 1 of 2 Says:

    […] to have much to do with chemistry; the deceased student wasn’t even a chemistry major. The nitric acid explosion at Maryland was certainly a chemistry accident, but it did not measure up to what transpired at […]

  6. stranger Says:

    ”im not saying lets kill all idiots, im saying we should try removing all labels and warnings and let it sort itself out” -******

  7. Organic Chemistry Student Says:


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