Volume 94 Issue 13 | p. 6 | News of The Week
Issue Date: March 28, 2016 | Web Date: March 25, 2016

Researcher Thea Ekins-Coward loses arm in University of Hawaii explosion

Incident involved mix of hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and oxygen gases
Department: Science & Technology
Keywords: lab safety, Safety, explosion, hydrogen, oxygen, biofuel, bioplastics
University of Hawaii, Mānoa, Chancellor Robert Bley-Vroman, School of Ocean & Earth Science & Technology Dean Brian Taylor and Environmental Health and Safety Office Director Roy Takekawa speak at a news conference on March 17.
Credit: University of Hawai’i

Postdoctoral researcher Thea Ekins-Coward, 29, lost an arm and suffered other injuries in a lab explosion at the University of Hawaii (UH), Mānoa on March 16.

Queen’s Medical Center, where Ekins-Coward was initially hospitalized, declined to release any information about her condition as of C&EN press time.

Ekins-Coward was working for the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute (HNEI), which is a research unit within UH. HNEI researcher Jian Yu operates the lab in which the explosion happened. Yu’s research program includes developing microbial processes for producing biofuels and bioplastics from renewable feedstocks.

At the time of the incident, Ekins-Coward was combining hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and oxygen gases from high-pressure cylinders into a lower pressure container, said Brian Taylor, dean of the School of Ocean & Earth Science & Technology, during a March 17 news conference. The mixture was to be used to feed bacteria. “Since 2008, when the project began, the process has been used almost daily and without incident,” Taylor said.

News media photos taken outside the lab show cracked windows, walls, and ceiling tiles, and a bent door.

The explosion that injured Ekins-Coward on March 16 cracked the glass in the door of the lab where she was working.
Credit: Allyson Blair/Hawaii News Now
The explosion that injured Ekins-Coward on March 16 cracked the glass in the door of the lab where she was working.
Credit: Allyson Blair/Hawaii News Now

Ekins-Coward had received general and lab-specific safety training, Environmental Health & Safety Office Director Roy Takekawa said at the news conference. The lab was last inspected in January and passed all requirements, Takekawa said.

The Hawaii Occupational Safety & Health Division is investigating the incident. “UH will also be bringing outside experts for its own investigation,” university spokesman Daniel Meisenzahl told C&EN. “Leadership has made a commitment to make sure everything is done thoroughly and correctly.”

Ekins-Coward is receiving workers’ compensation benefits, Meisenzahl added.

HNEI has initiated a comprehensive safety review of all its laboratory operations, Taylor said. The building was found to be structurally sound and reopened on March 18, although the damaged lab remains closed.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © American Chemical Society
Dr. ASHWANI KUMAR VERMA (March 24, 2016 11:08 PM)
Dear Mr. Jyllian Kemsley,
Sorry to know about the injury to the researcher in this accident. Could you please let me know that on what scale was he performing this reaction?

Being a chemist, his information will help me & team in future.

I wish Thea Ekins-Coward to get well soon.

Thanks & Best wishes,
Jyllian (March 28, 2016 1:03 PM)
I don't know exactly what was going on in the lab, but this is from a paper by the same PI, so probably similar:

A laboratory strain of hydrogen-oxidizing bacterium was isolated from local environment and used in this work. About 5 g of environmental sample was mixed with 50 mL salt solution (0.85% NaCl) and incubated in a rotary shaker (Innova 4230, New Brunswick Scientific, Edison, NJ) at 200 rpm and 30 °C for 1 h. Serial dilutions of the solution were spread on agar plates and left in anaerobic jars (2 L each). The jars were flushed with a gas (H2:O2:CO2 = 7:2:1), sealed and incubated at 30 °C. The gas was prepared from cylinders of H2, O2 and CO2 through a gas proportioner (T3215-56, Cole-Parmer, Vernon Hills, IL) and the composition was determined with a gas chromatography (Model 450, Bruker, Fremont, CA). After examination of microbial growth on agar, the jars were re-flushed with the gas. The microbial colonies were checked under UV light and those exhibiting fluorescent orange color were marked as positive isolates of Knallgas bacteria that accumulated polyhydroxybutyrate or other lipid storage compounds [18].

Nancy (March 28, 2016 10:44 AM)
Very tragic accident. The more details can be shared about the circumstances that contributed to it the better it will help us all to reduce the risk in our labs. Thank you and well wishes for Dr. Ekins-Coward and her family.
Dan G (April 20, 2016 1:07 AM)
See full fire investigative report here.

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