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June 29, 2010

Research Lab Explosion Injures Four People

Accident: One person is in the hospital after a hydrogen gas blast destroyed a University of Missouri biochemistry lab

Jyllian Kemsley

An explosion caused by hydrogen gas destroyed a University of Missouri biochemistry lab. Columbia fire department
An explosion caused by hydrogen gas destroyed a University of Missouri biochemistry lab.
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An explosion caused by hydrogen gas in a University of Missouri biochemistry research lab on Monday injured four people and destroyed the laboratory, university and fire department officials report.

The blast occurred in the lab of biochemistry professor Judy D. Wall, who studies sulfate-reducing bacteria.

The injured researchers included one graduate student, two postdoctoral researchers, and a staff research scientist, says University of Missouri spokesperson Christian Basi. Three were treated at the hospital and released; the fourth was hospitalized and reported to be in good condition on Tuesday.

The gas, which is extremely flammable and can form explosive mixtures with air, was being used for an experiment when the explosion occurred, says Columbia, Mo., fire department investigator Brian Davison. Investigators have not yet determined whether the gas was ignited or exploded spontaneously, although they do believe the explosion was an accident, Davison says.

The explosion blew out the windows of the third-floor lab and breached the wall between the lab and an adjacent office. When fire fighters arrived on the scene, they found a small fire covering an area of about 5 square feet, Davison says. One sprinkler head was activated, but investigators aren't sure whether it activated from the fire or from the blast of the explosion. The source of the hydrogen gas was a standard 55-inch-tall steel gas cylinder, which did not explode.

Aside from Wall's lab,  the adjacent office, and a lab below that sustained some water damage, campus officials determined on Tuesday that the building is structurally sound and that people could return to work in other areas, Basi says. The university is still assessing the damage and does not yet have a cost or time estimate for the repairs.

The incident comes on the heels of a June 2 fire in the science building at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale (SIUC). An undergraduate student working in chemistry professor Boyd Goodson's lab had been using hexane to clean oil from vacuum pumps. When the student returned from lunch, he found that some of the solvent had leaked onto a counter top. Before he could clean it up, an ignition source ignited the solvent vapor, says SIUC spokesperson Rod Sievers.

No one was hurt in the fire. The first-floor lab where the fire started was damaged, along with an adjacent room and corridor plus a room above. The university estimates the building repairs at $750,000 and the cost to repair or replace equipment—including lasers and a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer—at $500,000, Sievers says, and complete repairs could take until the end of the year.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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