University of Utah chemistry fire

Salt Lake City media reported a fire in the Henry Eyring Chemistry Building at the University of Utah on April 16. Here’s what chemistry department chair Cynthia Burrows emailed me about the incident last week:

Things stored in one of those double-walled, yellow flammable cabinets went off unexpectedly at 10:45 AM. No one was in the room but many were nearby, and pulled the fire alarm when it was obvious that the flames were too big to put out with a hand-held fire extinguisher. The heat triggered the sprinklers which put out the fire.

Basically, the building evacuation went like clockwork, and no one was injured. Lessons for the future? I believer there was white phosphorus stored in the cabinet in a sealed jar under water. However, having recently upgraded the ventilation to all chemical cabinets in a effort to improve air quality in the building, we may have accelerated the slow evaporation of the water. Everything is speculative at this point, as the evidence went up in smoke.

Next steps: as part of our summer clean-up and inventory, we’ll be opening all those cabinets and disposing of ageing chemicals.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. Ventilating a flammable liquid storage cabinets (sucking air into it to help reduce odor) is not recommended. It will reduce the cabinet’s effectiveness at protecting flammable liquids from a fire outside the cabinet. Which is what they’re designed to do. Apparently it will also hasten the evaporation of the water from the white phosphorus. Very pleased that things went well and nobody was hurt, property damage minimal.