Hydrogen/Oxygen Ballons

Garry Garrett
Research Chemist

Chemical & Engineering News (12 May 2003) Vol. 81, No. 19, pp. 4-5

P rior to the performance of a hydrogen/oxygen balloon demonstration, a serious accident occurred in which the demonstrator suffered painful second-degree burns to his right forearm and had to be taken to the hospital. In addition, the paramedics feared that even more serious respiratory damage (due to flame inhalation) might have occurred.

In preparation for the demonstration, the demonstrator had transported 15 prefilled hydrogen/oxygen balloons in a large, black polyethylene garbage bag.

During the setup for the demonstration, he opened the bag to remove a single balloon for stringing and floating. Without warning, the entire bag of balloons detonated violently. It was fortunate that the incident occurred an hour prior to the program and that nobody else was near. It's also fortunate that only a small box caught fire and that none of the other chemicals, already in place for other demos, became involved.

The demonstrator suggests that the slow leakage of hydrogen from the balloons (we feel confident saying that no balloon type is capable of completely containing hydrogen gas) allowed for the accumulation of hydrogen and oxygen in the bag's headspace. The dry, sealed bag created an environment ripe for the generation of static electricity. The movement of the hand and arm as they rubbed either or both the garbage bag or balloons generated a static discharge.

It is clear that the safe storage and transportation of hydrogen/oxygen-filled balloons is in doubt. There remain few scenarios that do not involve enclosed spaces (a car, even an approved courier who may be transporting additional dangerous materials) and the potential for static discharge. Perhaps a mesh bag could be used as long as sufficient ventilation is ensured. Still, the use of lecture bottles and on-site fill-up seems the safest.

The demonstrator feels fortunate that his injuries were relatively minor. (No respiratory damage occurred.)
Garry Garrett
Research Chemist

This page last revised May 9, 2003
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