Explosion at U. Maryland: Another Nitric Acid OopsieOctober 2nd, 2011
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 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.
 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.