Lab explosion seriously injures researcher

Article by Staff Writer

A LABORATORY explosion at the University of Hawaii, US on 16 March has seriously injured a 29-year-old visiting researcher, according to local media reports.

Hawaii News Now said that a visiting post-doctoral researcher, Thea Ekins-Coward, lost an arm and suffered other injuries in the explosion. However, the university has not confirmed the researcher’s name or the extent of the injuries received. The incident took place in a bioprocessing laboratory in the university, operated by the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute (HNEI).

A spokesperson for the university told The Chemical Engineer that the researcher was carrying out an experiment to produce a new liquid fuel, which involves converting CO and water into CO2 and H2, which are then used as a feedstock to grow bacterial cells that can produce complex organic compounds such as esters. These compounds are then polymerised into polyester, which is thermally degraded into a liquid fuel. The CO2, H2 and additional O2 gases are stored at high pressure in the laboratory.

The university is investigating the cause of the explosion. Brian Taylor, dean of the university’s School of Ocean & Earth Science & Technology, confirmed at a press conference this was a routine experiment and that the researcher was alone in the lab at the time. He responded to media speculation that the gas cylinders were responsible for the explosion, saying that they were small containers, and the H2 and O2 gases were bled off into lower-pressure environments.

“There was an explosion, and there had to be an ignition event. We don’t know what that was at this time,” he said, adding: “Since 2008, when the project began, the process has been used almost daily and without incident.”

Roy Takekawa, environmental health & safety office director at the university said the injured researcher had received general and lab-specific safety training of all procedures. A photograph of the lab, originally published by Hawaii News Now shows a sign that says the lab contains bacteria and requires “biosafety level 2 practices”, which involve working with agents that pose moderate hazards to personnel and the environment.

Robert Bley-Vroman, chancellor of the university, thanked a graduate student and two public safety officers for responding after the explosion occurred to ensure the injured researcher was taken to hospital.

Article by Staff Writer

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