Word has come of a bad industrial accident in the town of North Andover, about 25 to 30 miles north/northwest of Boston. There’s a Dow facility there, the Advanced Materials division, and what makes this particularly bad is that they had an explosion and death there as recently as 2013.
That one appears to have been due to trimethylindium, and today’s accident is said to be trimethylaluminum. My fellow chemists will be pursing their lips – these organometallics are among the most notorious fireballs in all of chemistry. Trimethylaluminum earns the respect of everyone who handles it – and if it doesn’t, then there’s always next time. Any exposure to oxygen, moisture, and a whole list of other things will produce billowing masses of flame, a wildly exothermic reaction driven (as with thermite) by the formation of the corresponding way-down-there metal oxide. Honestly, I would far rather handle t-butyllithium on a regular basis, its reputation and track record and all, than neat TMA.
The compound is bad enough on a bench scale, and has caused many a face to go pale behind the lab goggles (and if you don’t have something in front of your eyes when you’re working with this kind of reagent, you’re a fool). On the industrial scale. . .well, that’s something else again. There are all sorts of sealed systems, pumps, and reactors to keep trouble at bay, but as these events show, trouble doesn’t rest. It’s far too early to say what went wrong here, and reports of injuries are confused (4? 5?). But something went seriously wrong. Again.