Laboratory Misfortunes, Near Misses and Disasters
As no doubt have most people who have spent many years working in a scientific and engineering environment, during my career as a chemist-come-electronics engineer I have encountered numerous misfortunes, near misses, close escapes and disasters, and here are a few of them (though the first one was when I was a kid). Do you have any similar experiences? If so then please tell us about them…
First Mistake with a Firework in a Jam Jar
Although I was only a kid at the time (and thankfully quite a cautious one) with ambitions to become a scientist, the first time I encountered the explosive forces of nature was when an older kid decided to put a banger (firecracker) in a jam jar in order to increase the spectacle. He placed the jam jar on a wall, lit the touch paper and we all took cover. After a few minutes nothing had happened. He, with several other kids, approached the jam jar to see what had gone wrong; I was cautiously hovering in the background.
He picked up the jam jar and the firework, along with the jar, exploded. My final and horrific memory of the incident was seeing several kids running off in various directions screaming with glass embedded in their arms and their legs. Amazingly nobody lost their sight or was seriously injured though I will never forget the terror of the situation.
My first encounter with laboratory misfortunes was when I was an undergraduate chemistry student at the University of Bath. We were having a practical class in the organic chemistry laboratory on synthesising some organic compound or other. Those classes were a bit of a farce - at the end we had to show the lecturer what we had made and the yield (the amount of it we had managed to make), for which we got marked – the higher the yield the higher the mark. Fortunately we had an obliging laboratory technician. If we got something wrong and our yield was zero or very small then she would obligingly top it up from her secret supplies.
At this particular lab one student was using a large quantity of ether as a solvent. Instead of carefully evaporating it in a fume cupboard, he was reducing its volume on a hotplate in the open laboratory.
On a bench at the other end of the laboratory another student had lit a Bunsen burner. Suddenly there was a shout and without really knowing why we all hit the deck just as the flame ignited the ether vapour and a massive fireball engulfed the lab.
Apart from the student with the flask of ether no one was injured. He however received serious burns to his hands and arms and it was many months after leaving hospital before the bandages came off, though he did make a complete recovery eventually.
It was a fellow chemistry student’s stag night which he was holding on the evening before his wedding. The stag night was in Cardiff and he had removed a large piece of Sodium from the lab to throw into the canal and thus create an instant firework display. When Sodium hits water the result is spectacular – this video will show you what happens but do not try this at home!
In order to keep sodium safe it is kept in a jar of paraffin oil. He (having by that time consumed a significant amount of alcohol) thought that it would be better to remove some of the paraffin before throwing the sodium into the canal, so he started rubbing it off with a handful of grass. The grass was wet which caused the sodium to explode in his hand.
Amazingly he survived and fully recovered from his injuries though of course missed his wedding day, spending it in hospital.
Second Stag Night Spent in Jail Following Town Centre Explosion
The wedding was rearranged for some months later. This time in order to celebrate his stag night he decided to set off some fireworks in the centre of Bath. Being a chemist he constructed a large firework himself and planted it on a traffic island in the centre of the town. He lit the touch paper and retired to a safe distance, but he had seriously underestimated its explosive power.
When it went “bang” the explosion was so big that it made a large crater in the island and shook the surrounding buildings. Everybody scattered but the police caught up with him and he was arrested. Presumably they thought initially that it had been a bomb. So instead of getting married he spent his wedding day in the police cells.
Having missed his wedding twice his fiancé gave him a third chance. That time they really did get married.
Close Call with Cyanide
When I was a young graduate I was working in the chemistry laboratories of an Aeroplane manufacturer. One of our tasks was to look after the electroplating baths in the plating shop. Some of these were used for chromium plating, and the plating solution was chromium cyanide. Maintaining the correct concentrations of cyanide and chrome, along with the alkalinity of the baths was critical.
Once a week we used to take samples from the baths and analyse them in the lab. To analyse them we would use a pipette with a rubber bulb to measure out exactly 25 millilitres which we would then analyse by titration.
I had a school leaver as an assistant and asked him to pipette out 25 ml of the cyanide solution. I should add that the solution contained around 20% cyanide and was extremely toxic. Swallowing just a drop of it would more likely than not result in a very rapid and painful death.
I wasn’t watching what he was doing but suddenly noticed that everybody in the lab had frozen and were staring in our direction. My assistant, instead of using a rubber bulb to suck up the solution, was using his mouth! As he tried to get the level of the solution to coincide with the 25ml mark of the pipette this lethal solution was hovering, in what was essentially a glass straw, just a centimetre or so from his mouth.What could we do? If we called his attention to it then this could have caused him to suck the cyanide into his mouth. We must have all realised intuitively that the best thing to do was keep quiet and wait. It was a tense few minutes which seemed a lot longer, though luckily he got away with it.
In synthetic chemistry copious use is made of crushed ice in order to cool down and moderate chemical reactions. In this particular and somewhat run down laboratory the ice maker produced ice discs which had to be manually transferred to an ice crusher.
One day I was fishing out ice discs from a pool of water in the bottom of the ice maker with one hand whilst operating the ice crusher with the other. The ice crusher could not have been properly wired up; it shorted out causing the metal case to go live.
With one hand on a metal case carrying 250 volts and the other in water inside an earthed metal container the shock I received was so severe that the resultant muscular contraction propelled me backwards down the full length of the laboratory. I was very lucky to get away relatively unharmed.
Short-cut Chromatography: not such a good idea after all
It was my first week at a new job within the pharmaceutical industry. I was asked to clean down and prepare a liquid chromatography rig. We used liquid chromatography to separate the various products made in a chemical reaction.
The rig consisted of a tube around 1.5 metres long and about 13 cm in diameter. It was open at one end where solvents were introduced and the other end tapered into a small tube about 5 millimetres in diameter. The tube was filled with solvent soaked “kieselguhr” which is a very fine powder and is used as a kind of filter medium.
Washing it out was obviously going to take a long time and was a very boring process, so I quickly devised a short cut. I took a high pressure nitrogen line and connected it to the small tube and held the wide end over a large bucket to collect the powder as the nitrogen forced it out.
It all went very well, and the tube was almost emptied within a few minutes however, when the tube finally emptied it released with a “whoooooosh” a large volume of high pressure nitrogen into the bucket with the effect that it caused a huge cloud of the kieselguhr to be shot into the air; this covered everything and everybody in the lab with sticky white powder.
It took me several days to clear up the mess and many more for the embarrassment to subside - not the greatest way to start a new job.
Expensive 3D TV experiment
Some time later I was working in the microelectronics industry. We were doing some consultancy work for an outfit that was working on a very early 3D television. We were experimenting on the use of lead lanthanum zirconate titanate (PLZT), an optically transparent polarising ceramic material. We had obtained a number of extremely thin discs of the material on which we had constructed fine mesh of electrodes.
They would work something like today’s 3D TV glasses, but back then that quality of PLZT was a very expensive material.
In the final stage of processing I had washed all the wafers and loaded them into a centrifuge we used for drying. The project manager had come to see how I was getting on and he was extremely pleased with the progress we had made as I pointed out that we had finally completed the process.
I switched on the centrifuge, but something had gone wrong with the lid which came off. Like a flying saucer, the rapidly spinning carousel holding the wafers rose from the body of the centrifuge into the air. We ducked as it crashed into a wall and distributed broken fragments of the PLZT over the lab floor.
I was moved onto another project, which was a relief compared with the things that the project manager had threatened to do to me.
Nothing Only Happens Once
A similar experience to the above was destined to happen again. At the time I was technical director of an electronics start-up company. We had developed a new interconnection technology but we were struggling with various aspects of it along with rapidly approaching deadlines to show a financial return.
We were working on using the technology to produce devices using expensive and rare ferroelectric materials for a customer. The customer had supplied the ferrite substrates.
After many trials finally we had good results and I was going into a board meeting with the MD and our venture capitalists and other backers extremely pleased and relived that I had good news to report.
The technician was carrying a tray holding the samples from the clean room and the next stage was to package them up to dispatch to our customer. On the route she tripped and dropped the tray. All the ferrite substrates broke into many pieces, she burst into tears, and the board meeting was cancelled.
We survived to live another day and once we had calmed down our customer eventually we were able to produce replacement samples.
A Marketing Disaster
There are many more tales to tell but it is probably time to draw the topic to a close for now, so I will conclude on a final disaster which was due to marketing, or rather a lack of it.
I was working as general manager for another start up company that had been initiated by the universities of Durham and Newcastle and generously funded by a regional grant. The model was to provide semiconductor testing services to Siemens who (encouraged by a huge grant from the labour government) had set up a semiconductor fabrication facility in the region.
We needed a state of the art semiconductor tester and those things don’t come cheap. After much soul searching we decided to purchase an IMS mixed signal tester at a price of around £1 million plus an essential maintenance and software licence contract that would cost several hundreds of thousands of pounds a year.
Suffering from a downturn in the semiconductor market Siemens closed down their facility before it had even started running, so the whole basis of our company suddenly was changed.
We could have cancelled our planned purchase of the equipment and completely changed tack, spending the money on something else entirely with a revised business model; however the company was run mainly by engineers who simply wanted to get their hands on the equipment whatever the consequences; no need to worry about customers, obviously they would just come along.
As it turned out the consequences were dire. Without any market, and without any prospects of developing one, the tester was an archetypal white elephant which quickly drained the company of its cash without providing any return at all.
Predictably, within months we had no option but to fold the company. The tester is ending its days gathering dust in a university laboratory and has never been used for its proper purpose.
Anything to add?
I am sure that many of you have similar and probably more exciting laboratory stories to relate, so please tell us about them…
More by this Author
The town of St Ives in Cornwall UK is said to have a special quality of light that makes it appealing to artists. This article discusses the phenomenon.