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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 8, 2006

How Not to Do It: Liquid Nitrogen Tanks

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Posted by Derek

N2%20tanks.jpgA colleague of mine forwarded a copy of an accident report from Texas A&M. It seems that in mid-January they had a bit of a blowout there, thanks to a big liquid nitrogen tank. Now, liquid nitrogen cylinders are normally fairly benign, as long as you don't freeze your external organs off with the stuff or leave the liquid sitting around where it can condense oxygen out of the air. But idiocy will find a way - note the regular cylinder on the right and the new, improved model next to it.

These guys are usually equipped with pressure relief fittings, since nitrogen does tend to want to be a gas, and gases do tend to want to expand quite a bit. This tank, though, which seems to have been kicking around since 1980, had been retrofitted by a real buckaroo. Both the pressure relief and rupture disks had failed for some reason in the past, so they'd been removed and sealed off with metal plugs. You may commence shivering now.

Why it didn't blow long ago is a real stumper, but presumably people were taking nitrogen out of it quickly enough to keep things together. Not this time, though: at around 3 AM, things came to a head as the internal tank (these things are double-walled) expanded until it pressed against the outer one. That kept it from expanding anywhere else except on the ends, and as fate would have it, the bottom blew out first. The engineer's best guess is that this took place at around a 1200 psi load. It must have been quite a sight, although it's a damn good thing that no one was around to see it. I'll let the engineer's report take it from here:

The cylinder had been standing at one end of a ~20' x 40' laboratory on the second floor of the chemistry building. It was on a tile covered 4-6" thick concrete floor, directly over a reinforced concrete beam. The explosion blew all of the tile off of the floor for a 5' radius around the tank turning the tile into quarter sized pieces of shrapnel that embedded themselves in the walls and doors of the lab. The blast cracked the floor but due to the presence of the supporting beam, which shattered, the floor held. Since the floor held the force of the explosion was directed upward and propelled the cylinder, sans bottom, through the concrete ceiling of the lab into the mechanical room above. It struck two 3 inch water mains and drove them and the electrical wiring above them into the concrete roof of the building, cracking it. The cylinder came to rest on the third floor leaving a neat 20" diameter hole in its wake. The entrance door and wall of the lab were blown out into the hallway, all of the remaining walls of the lab were blown 4-8" off of their foundations. All of the windows, save one that was open, were blown out into the courtyard.

No one seems to have heard the celebrations, but someone noticed that the building's water pressure had gone a little wimpy and went to investigate, which I'll bet was a real eye-opener. I get the impression that they're still trying to track down the Mr. Fix-It who inadvertently rigged the tank for takeoff. The company engineer who came in to investigate noted that he's seen these kinds of "repair" jobs before, generally after they've powered through something.

Comments (26) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: How Not to Do It


1. Jim Hu on March 9, 2006 2:55 AM writes...


I pinged you about this accident in January (scrolled off the recent trackbacks by now) and posted about the report when it came out.

The report suggests that the "repairs" on this tank were done at two different times. Also, the lab where this happened was a synthetic organic group - the destruction+flooding, which made it into the lab below and the departmental office, made for a hazmat problem.

One of my friends in Chemistry suggested that we should have all grad students tour the destruction before it's repaired.

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2. John Johnson on March 9, 2006 5:55 AM writes...

Ever had liquid nitrogen ice cream? It's weird stuff. But pretty good.

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3. Derek Lowe on March 9, 2006 9:12 AM writes...

Sorry I missed the ping, Jim - it's probably buried in there with all kinds of wonderful offers for discount everything. I figured you'd have some more information on this, though.

I told my wife, who did molecular biology for some years, about this one. As soon as I got to the part about ". . .so they stopped it up with metal plugs" she covered her eyes with her hands and started shaking her head. That seems to be the usual reaction.

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4. Tim Mayer on March 9, 2006 10:20 AM writes...

I've heard all kinds of horror stories in the past about cylinders turning into rockets when the cap was broken, but this one takes the cake. Makes you wonder what kind of precautions the people take who work with superciritical liquid nitrogen.

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5. Dave on March 9, 2006 10:38 AM writes...

I used to do a fair amount of NMR in grad school on an ancient Bruker 500 MHz spectrometer. This was a departmental instrument and there was no facilities manager at the time so that many different users were doing both the liquid helium and liquid nitrogen fills. Liquid helium can be tricky as it's easy to "overfill" and run your dewar dry so that you end up pumping in residual gas/air from the dewar along with condensed water/ice. This type of mistake was made often enough over the years to plug 3 of the 4 helium vents on the 500 with ice. So one fateful Friday afternoon, I sat down as a novice user to run a series of experiments over the weekend with one of the more senior students in my lab. We were calibrating pulse lengths, shimmming the machine and so forth and I thought the data looked horrible and that something must be wrong. We pressed ahead anyway against my wishes. I came in the next morning to process data to find one of the faculty disassembling what was left of the instrument. The layer of ice and snow covering everything in the lab tipped me off to the fact that the last helium vent must have plugged up. It had done so at ~3am and caused the bore to be shot from the body of the 500 with sufficient force to go through the 2 floors above and into the ceiling 3 floors up.

The moral of this and the A&M story: trust your instinct and don't take the word of those around you when they're obviously wrong because the results can be deadly!

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6. Milo on March 9, 2006 11:29 AM writes...

This reminds me of my first job. Straight out of college I was working in a polymer lab for a great Dutch company. I was shown a video during a training session of an Argon tank that had fallen over, had the valve knocked off, and took off like a drunk torpedo. Pretty scary stuff.

I also recall, at this same job (oddly enough!), that I was looking after an intern who needed to do a vacuum transfer of solvent from a warm flask to a cold flask (cooled with liquid N2). After completing the transfer, he pulled the flask from the N2 bath and noticed a bluish tint. Apparently, he did not set up the vacuum correctly.

Suffice it to say, no one was hurt.

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7. Jim Hu on March 9, 2006 1:02 PM writes...

I should have put a wink or something on my earlier post. I don't expect you to read my blog religiously...I don't come here every day either...but I do come here a lot when I'm procrastinating ;^) [this comment being posted while I'm proctoring an exam]

One of the things that's scary as head of a lab is not knowing what things like this may have been done without anyone bothering to tell you. Every now and then I'll be walking through the lab and I'll find that someone is doing something really weird (washing the toothpicks, for example - we reuse them, but all you have to do is autoclave them). I'll ask and get told "we've always done it that way"

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8. Bob on March 9, 2006 2:05 PM writes...

As Keanu might say, "Whoa"! I saw the picture and was wondering how the tank got smashed. The story behind the smash was incredible.

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9. Anonymous on March 9, 2006 4:55 PM writes...


That description is hair-raising. The awful truth is that this type of stuff happens (or is ripe to happen) all too often in academic labs. Frankly, the PIs have only themselves to blame for this sorry state of affairs.

Lab violations were one of the items that was used to justify shutting down Pettit's lab at ASU-but that whole ordeal is worthy of its own post.

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10. daen on March 10, 2006 8:19 PM writes...

Um, isn't this the sort of thing that should end up on an Aggie joke page ...? :-)

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11. daen on March 11, 2006 8:42 AM writes...

I did an apprenticeship at an industrial control systems manufacturer some 20 years ago. One of the things they did to scare us out of our tiny minds was to show us videos of typical industrial accidents. I remember that one was about BLEVEs (Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapour Explosions, also known as Blast Levelling Everything Very Effectively). The company has offices in Houston - maybe they could show some of the same videos at A&M (or take the opportunity to film some new ones)?

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12. Paul Dietz on March 12, 2006 12:03 PM writes...

Schlumberger had a similar scare-the-s**t out of them film, only this was for workers doing well casing perforation with shaped charges. It's amazing what a shaped charge will shoot through when it goes off.

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13. Xmas on March 14, 2006 2:45 PM writes...

Speaking of Liquid Nitrogen...

I know two people that were witnesses to the "accident". What's not mentioned in the story is that once the upper valve to the stomach freezes, there is only one way for the gas to work itself of out the digestive tract.

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14. daen on March 15, 2006 4:50 AM writes...

the liquid nitrogen instantly expanded from a volume of about 3 or 4 cc's to about 3 or 4 liters and then dissected into five separate body compartments

Moral: don't swallow anything solid or liquid that wants to be a gas at body temperature.

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15. KInno Tan on December 18, 2006 7:02 PM writes...

hi,Im doing experiments with a university involving liquid Nitrogen.I was wondering if you can give me more details of cylinders that are used to house them.Are there any materials available on the internet for general viewing?

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16. Mark Dominus on July 16, 2009 1:23 AM writes...

There's a quite similar story in Mario Salvadori's book "Why Buildings Fall Down" about an improperly-installed hot water tank in a basement in New York.

If I remember correctly, not only was the tank set up with its emergency pressure release valve stuck, but it was installed under an overhead gas pipe. When the tank exploded, it rocketed to the ceiling, breaking open the gas pipe. The subsequent gas explosion broke windows several blocks away.

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17. Jonathan W on March 10, 2010 8:47 PM writes...

I watched a crew cradle, then lift a trailer and swing it directly over a wellhead christmas tree with about 5 foot to spare.

I'm sure that would have been interesting.

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18. Jim Hickstein on May 13, 2010 11:32 AM writes...

It doesn't take liquid nitrogen to do this. Water will do. _Why Buildings Fall Down_, Levy et al, cites one example of a water tank head snapping through, accelerating the tank until it contacted a nearby natural gas line, which ruptured in turn and ended predictably.

I found a little book at a surplus store, designated for "first responders only," that lists all the numbers you see on truck and rail car placards, what's inside, and how far to run. Every second page bears the large legend ALWAYS STAY AWAY FROM THE ENDS OF TANKS.

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19. Cybergibbons on July 13, 2010 9:35 AM writes...

Just seen this - I know this is from 2006, but does anyone still have the original report?

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20. Scott Armstrong on July 18, 2010 1:43 AM writes...

As a young Engineer Rockwell had ALL ! the people at thier Hanford Site that MIGHT need to work with high pressure nitrogen cylinders tour the building where someone had done something stupid. (No one hurt)

Chinese Saying "A Wise man will learn form his mistakes, A Genius will learn form someone else's."
I will forever be thankful for the people that gave me the opportunity to be a genius.
The experience re-shaped my life.

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21. Kenny Sharp on June 7, 2011 3:29 PM writes...

Read the full report, complete with pictures:

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22. Gas pipe on June 23, 2011 1:46 AM writes...

Please tell me why this gas is so cool is it a kind of ice cream. Thanks for giving us lot of information.

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23. Topher on November 4, 2011 12:40 AM writes...

I read a report from the safety office at the University of Michigan some 35 years ago about a pressurized gas cylinder that had been removed from it's wall rack in order to paint the wall behind it. It fell over, neatly snapping off the valve. It rocketed around the room; among other damage it neatly removed the scaffolding from under a painter, who fell and broke his leg. It made it out into the hallway and through the wall at the end of the hall, launching itself into space. It landed in a well next to a loading dock, where it "spent itself".

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24. Thelma Ianni on March 29, 2014 12:49 PM writes...

Resident Alien: your argument against capital punishment is an argument against prison.

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25. Harshad on October 11, 2014 5:27 AM writes...

Can anybody tell me the internal construction of the tank for manufacturing.

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26. Edna Paul on August 11, 2015 9:33 AM writes...

This story was incredible. I have wondered what could do liquid nitrogen cylinder if they blow off. I will show this to my dad. He works with this kind of equipment and he should know how dangerous it could be. Thank you for sharing this report! P.S. I imagine the whole scene as a cartoon movie. LOL

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