The Sceptical Chymist | ACS: Listen up kids, it could happen to you


I wouldn’t normally go to the health and safety talks, but this one struck a personal chord with me. “Explosion in a refrigerator results in college laboratory fire”. Hey, it could happen to anyone. Really, I didn’t know that the fridge hadn’t been made chemistry-safe. Really, IT COULD HAPPEN TO ANYONE….

… Anyway, on with the story. Lawrence Stephens is professor of natural sciences at Elmira College (apparently the first college to offer degrees to women that were equivalent to men’s degrees).

Larry had high hopes for one of his students to crack a particularly tricky chemical synthesis, and was thrilled that said student wanted to do extra work over Thanksgiving. When that student asked if he could leave his solution in the fridge as a final attempt for it to crystalise, Larry said “sure”.

It turns out that there was a miscommunication about which fridge was to be used, and the student popped his solution (2 litres of pentane) into a normal fridge in the basic science lab – which also had hydrogen peroxide in it. And the door was firmly closed for 3 days or so. This resulted in a major explosion that gutted the undergrad teaching lab (on a positive note, a brand new and very swanky new lab was built as a replacement).

Now for that personal chime I felt. During my PhD a similar – almost identical thing happened to me. The fridge in my lab – unbeknownst to me – had not been modified so had working electrics inside that cause low flash-point solvents to spark. Oops. My lovely dichloromethane solution never did give me the nice crystals I wanted. But I guess, like Larry, I did get a new lab. (sorry Brian).

As Larry put it, there is a lesson to be learned “we shouldn’t have household refrigerators in our labs”. Wise words indeed.

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