Explosion at the University of Hawaii seriously injures researcher | Chemical & Engineering News
  • UPDATE: A newer version of this story confirming the name of the researcher and her lab manager can be found here.
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Web Date: March 21, 2016

Explosion at the University of Hawaii seriously injures researcher

Thea Ekins-Coward lost an arm, local media report
Department: Science & Technology
Keywords: Safety, Lab safety, explosion, 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

A 29-year-old researcher was seriously injured in a lab explosion at the University of Hawaii, Mānoa, on March 16.

The researcher is Thea Ekins-Coward, and she lost an arm and suffered other injuries, according to local media reports. When C&EN inquired about her condition on March 20, Queen’s Medical Center, the facility where she is hospitalized, declined to release any information.

Ekins-Coward is listed as a postdoctoral researcher in the alternative fuels group at the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute (HNEI), which is a research unit within the university. The university has not confirmed that Ekins-Coward was the person injured.

The lab in which the explosion happened was operated by HNEI and focuses on renewable energy and degradable bioplastics, said Brian Taylor, dean of the School of Ocean & Earth Science & Technology, during a March 17 news conference. At the time of the incident, the researcher who was injured was combining hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and oxygen gases from high-pressure cylinders into a lower pressure container. The mixture was to be used as a feedstock to grow cells. “Since 2008, when the project began, the process has been used almost daily and without incident,” Taylor said.

The explosion that injured a 29-year-old researcher last week cracked the glass in the door of the lab where she was working.
Credit: Allyson Blair/Hawaii News Now
Photo of lab door showing cracked glass.
The explosion that injured a 29-year-old researcher last week cracked the glass in the door of the lab where she was working.
Credit: Allyson Blair/Hawaii News Now

The injured researcher 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.

Although the injured researcher was alone in the lab at the time of the incident, others were nearby. Two public safety officers and a graduate student evacuated her from the facility, chancellor Robert Bley-Vroman said at the news conference. “We are extremely grateful to those first three responders who acted so quickly to get the injured individual to the hospital,” Bley-Vroman said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the individual who was injured.”

News media photos taken outside the lab show cracked windows, walls, and ceiling tiles, and a bent door. A sign on the door lists the emergency contact as Jian Yu, an HNEI staff researcher who works on microbial bioprocessing, bioreactor engineering, biofuels, and biomaterials. The sign also says that the lab contains bacteria and requires biosafety level 2 practices, which apply to work involving agents that pose moderate hazards to personnel and the environment.

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.

UPDATE: A newer version of this story confirming the name of the researcher and her lab manager can be found here.
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Robert Foster (March 23, 2016 1:48 PM)
My prayers go out to Ms. Elkins-Coward and those close to her. I suggest including hydrogen as a keyword. I have had rapid oxidation of hydrogen occur in the lab. I hope that there is a full analysis of this event.
dzrlib (March 23, 2016 2:07 PM)
Given that the lower explosive limit for hydrogen in air is 4% by volume ... it would be interesting to know more about the procedure used for mixing H2, CO2 and O2.
Louis DuPree (March 23, 2016 3:28 PM)
Take a look at the article "Spontaneous Ignition of Hydrogen" at hse.gov.uk. The mixing of oxygen and high pressure hydrogen offers a number of opportunities for fire or explosion. Note also that the hydrogen was probably above its Joule-Thompson inversion temperature--it warmed on expansion into the mixing vessel.
john j skiffington (March 23, 2016 7:26 PM)
my sympathy to ms elkins-coward as due to human work/fatigue, onehas a tendency to rush procedure. the joule-Thompson inversion probably had been a factor, but another factor of excessive molecular speed most probably evolved into significant heat energy as it expanded into the mix container that caused the violent chemical reaction.***
Dr. David Manuta, FAIC (March 23, 2016 4:36 PM)
These comments are all spot-on. Louis Dupree and dzrlib have noted the key issues associated with hydrogen in this application. When I see the words high pressure cylinder and hydrogen, I cringe. This young woman is very fortunate to be alive.

The wide explosive/flammability limits (between 4% and 75% by volume in air) for hydrogen and the exothermic reactivity with oxygen (think of a NASA launch) are pieces of information that anyone working with hydrogen must always be cognizant.

Part of the training that (in my considered opinion) needs to occur must deal with any leaks in a hydrogen system. This is, of course, a great concern with high pressure cylinders. Once the hydrogen is within its explosive envelope, it is unforgiving, and often unstoppable.

As I had previously noted to Ms. Kemsley, several years back I investigated an explosion that occurred upon hydrogen generation on a humid day in the presence of reactive metals (e.g., aluminum and magnesium) and a welding torch. An estimated 10,000 square feet of a warehouse was flattened, one worker was killed, and a second worker was unable to return to work for 18 months.
Paul Palmer (March 23, 2016 6:38 PM)
I am as saddened and commiserate with the injured worker as anyone, but a special feature of the story leapt out at me because of my own work. It says that she was working on biodegradable plastics. This work, is in its essence, completely unnecessary and should not have been in a process to injure anyone, if that indeed caused the injury. Biodegradability is a fraudulent greenwashing put out by the plastics industry to convince the public that is is desirable to spend the same enormous resources needed to produce any plastic (factory, equipment, raw materials, energy, water, laborers and researchers) and then destroy the plastic after a single use. The point is to misdirect attention away from the waste of resources to destroy plastic after a single use so that there is no incentive to design plastic parts for perpetual reuse which would affect the profits of plastics manufacturers but would be far more environmentally beneficial than any resource destruction scheme can ever be, whether the destruction is carried out by flames, UV or bacteria. Or by permanent underground storage.
terry rathman (March 24, 2016 10:49 AM)
somber time indeed. prayers to her and her family and those who rescued her.
even when transferring gases, proper grounding of containers and transfer lines etc is necessary. this practice is well known for transferring liquids to prevent accumulation of static electricity.
Albert Fry (March 24, 2016 10:56 AM)
I extend my deepest sympathies to Dr. Ekins-Cowardon the loss of her arm. At the same time I would like her to know that this need not impact her career aspirations. I also lost a hand in 1961, also as a result of a laboratory explosion, midway through my graduate studies in organic chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, I completed my graduate work in 1963, spent a year as a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology, and then accepted a faculty position in the Chemistry department of Wesleyan University, where I have been ever since and am now approaching retirement. After my accident, I learned how to plan experiments carefully in advance such that they could be done with one hand. it made me think more carefully by visualizing the operations involved in an experiment before beginning it.
Sanford Kirksey (March 24, 2016 5:03 PM)
A sad occurrence. My prayers for the injured researcher and her family/colleagues. Let's not be hasty in assuming human error as the root cause of this accident. Investigations into such accidents usually reveal not one, but a chain of events, that result in tragedy. Also, there may be some aspect of the procedure or the chemistry that previously was not known or understood. Such is the nature of basic research. I hope the investigators take their time.
Jyllian (March 25, 2016 11:48 AM)
I have yet to see a serious lab incident in which "chemistry that previously was not known or understood" was actually a factor. Every incident I've read or reported about has involved well-known hazards.
Jim H (March 25, 2016 10:33 AM)
Class move by C&E/ACS releasing the name of the injured scientist while she's very likely still in the hospital recovering.
Mary M (March 25, 2016 10:37 AM)
Naming the victim was a classless move. Prayers to the victim and all involved.
Jim (March 26, 2016 5:41 PM)
Does anyone have a link to proper procedures for filling a balloon from a hydrogen cylinder?
Jyllian (March 28, 2016 4:30 PM)
This would be for demonstration purposes, correct? I've never done this, but I'm guessing that ensuring there are no ignition sources and using an appropriate two-stage compressed gas regulator would be important.

The Royal Society of Chemistry has an alternative procedure in which the hydrogen gas is generated in situ:
Jyllian Kemsley (July 11, 2016 2:37 PM)
UPDATE: The University of California Center for Laboratory Safety has completed its investigation of the explosion, and concluded that the immediate cause was not a spark from the pressure gauge but an electrostatic discharge between Ekins-Coward and the gas tank. Going beyond the immediate cause of the explosion, however, “the overall underlying cause of the accident was failure to recognize and control the hazards of an explosive gas mixture of hydrogen and oxygen,” the UCCLS report says.

Story and links to the report are here: http://cen.acs.org/articles/94/i28/University-Hawaii-lab-explosion-likely.html

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