Explosion injures University of Minnesota graduate student

The fume hood after the explosion. Credit: University of Minnesota

The fume hood after the explosion. Credit: University of Minnesota

An explosion on Tuesday in a chemistry lab at the University of Minnesota injured a graduate student. The student was making trimethylsilyl azide.

The student injured his arm and side, and he needed surgery to deal with glass shards, chemistry department chair William B. Tolman said yesterday afternoon. The student also injured an eardrum. He was not severely burned. “He was lucky,” Tolman said. “It was a pretty powerful explosion.” Tolman expected the student to be hospitalized for another couple of days.

The procedure that the student was following was from Org. Synth. 1970, DOI: 10.15227/orgsyn.050.0107. He’s a member of professor T. Andrew Taton‘s group.

Investigators have not spoken with the student yet, and they don’t know how much material he was working with or at what point he was at in the process, Tolman said. The location of the student’s injuries indicates that he was reaching into the hood when the explosion happened, but what he was reaching for or why remains unknown. Tolman also didn’t know what protective equipment the student was wearing or whether he was using a blast shield.

As for why the explosion happened, “I have a lot of ideas and no evidence for any one of them,” Tolman said. Humid weather could have led to moisture in the system and production of hydrazoic acid, for example, or something could have set off the sodium azide starting material.

“I have concerns over the level of recognition of hazard and risk mitigation, but I don’t know enough yet about what exactly was done and not done,” Tolman said.

The department has been working over the past couple of years to improve its safety culture. Given all the unknowns about the incident, it’s too early to say whether the efforts helped to mitigate what happened or what more the department might want to do, Tolman said. At the same time, “I will say that we are in a particularly good position to learn well because we already have a strong communications effort in place,” he added.

People working with organic azides should refer to “Organic Azides, Syntheses and Applications” by Stefan Bräse and Klaus Banert for safety precautions.

More discussion at Chemjobber

Updated to add photo

Updated again to add: More details on the University of Minnesota explosion and response

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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1 Comment

  1. As an undergraduate student I had fairly serious accident that was entirely my fault. Ultimately, I was treated properly for my injury and there was no harm done except to my pride. As a graduate student we were well supervised. My doctoral professor made sure that all of us worked carefully and safely. We had more than adequate safety equipment. The point is that in the mid 1960’s we were given an adequate safe research space and safety was emphasized. Considering that the building we worked in was extremely well designed I do not remember a single serious accident despite the fact that some of us were working with extremely toxic and explosive compounds. Accidents do happen none the less so I hope that there will be an open process that helps everyone understand how to be safer. To be clear it is the responsibility of the laboratory director to make sure that everyone fully understands the necessary safe procedures. As an industrial chemist for nearly 30 years I never saw a single injury accident because my supervisors were held personally responsible for such events.