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How Not to Do It

How Not To Do It: Ruining Stuff

Here’s a question for the readership that should generate some interesting answers: what’s the most valuable item you’ve seen someone ruin in a lab? I’ll leave it broad enough to include both equipment and materials, and I expect to cringe numerous times on reading the comments.
I can put one into the hopper to start things off. Back some years ago, the guys down the hall from me had bought one of the largest Chiracel columns that were then sold. (For the non-chemists in the audience, this is a large packed column used to separate mirror image compound isomers (enantiomers) by pumping a mixture through). This was one of the ones where the chiral packing wasn’t really bonded on to anything, but just sort of layered on another powdered solid support. And as the literature included with the column made clear, this meant that you could wash the stuff right off if you weren’t careful with your solvent selection.
Well, it made it clear if you, like, read the sheet and everything. Which didn’t stop someone from taking up their compound in methylene chloride and pumping it right onto the barely-used $15,000 (late 1980s money) column. And in the fullness of time (say, ten or fifteen minutes), out came the solvent front from the other end: cloudy, milky, swirling with opalescent shimmers like shampoo. Which shimmery stuff was, of course, the fifteen long ones of chiral resolving agent, scoured off the packing material by the cleansing wave of chlorinated solvent.
There: clean, simple, direct, and easily avoidable by spending two minutes reading a sheet of paper. That’s the kind of thing I have in mind. Some additional examples?

74 comments on “How Not To Do It: Ruining Stuff”

  1. Brooks Moses says:

    The one I remember is a $10,000 optical-grade glass window into a supersonic wind tunnel. Basically, an inch-and-a-half-thick chunk of glass in the shape of a two-pulley fan belt (a larger and a smaller circle joined by tangent lines) about 10″ by 15″ or so. We were testing a model of a jet engine inlet in the tunnel, and the inner part of the inlet — a chunk of steel about ten inches long and an inch and a half in diameter at its thickest point, with a long narrow pointy cone on the end — needed to be screwed out at the end of the run to examine the colored-oil streaks on it, and screwed back in place before the next run.
    But, to give you an idea of this particular student’s lab habits, I should mention the pitot tube incident. Another thing going on in this wind tunnel was a pitot tube measuring velocities and pressures inside the inlet. (A pitot tube is a sort of double-walled tube, bent in a right angle at the end, with holes a the end to measure pressures in different directions, and one can get a velocity measurement from them. They’re the hooked things that stick out of the front of a jet plane.) It was a fairly low-tech rig, and had to be manually set to the top of its travel, and then a computer controller would move it down a centimeter or so, taking measurements. The controller had in LARGE RED LETTERS on screen above the “go” button a warning that said “Reset the pitot tube to the top of its travel before pressing ‘go’ or you will damage it.” So he ignored the warning, clicked go, and was somewhat saddened to find that the servo motor pulled the pitot tube through the side of the inlet and straightened out the tip. But that was only a $50 or so part.
    So you probably know what’s coming with the glass window. It turns out that when you subject this particular inlet design to a sudden blast of air about about Mach 3, there’s a shock wave that travels forward from the back of the inlet out the front, and if the central piece is not firmly screwed in place, it will pull the center of the inlet out with it. At which point you have this chunk of steel loose in a Mach 3 flow of air. It got a bit sideways, and the tip of it hit the glass.
    This bent the tip completely into a tight little U at the end, about like a fishhook except it got up to 3mm in diameter at the end of the bent part. And it put a crack about a half inch deep and five inches long into the glass window. That’s why the window is an inch and a half thick.
    And I, as the lowest-ranking grad student in the lab, had the honor of taking the window out of the aluminum door (another inch-and-a-half-thick slab) so that it could be replaced. As best I could tell, the window had been set in with plaster of paris, with a gap of maybe a millimeter or so. And it wasn’t a straight seam, either; the inner half-inch was beveled at 45 degrees, so we couldn’t go all the way through and then use a saw. Oh, and we figured the crack could be ground out and the window then reused, since it was $10,000 and the crack wasn’t that deep, so smashing it to get it out also wouldn’t do.
    And so that was a long week. And a fair quantity of worn-out dental picks….

  2. milkshake says:

    Any magnet quench will set you back 20k+ and over 3 weeks of down time. If the person who was taking care of the instrument was sloppy throughout, there is likely to be also chunks of ice inside the dewars build up from condensed moisture – in which case the ice blockage combined with quench overpressure can blow the top of the magnet off…
    As for silly mishaps, there was a peptide custom synthesis lab in Prague. To cut on costs, they were buying only more elabodate side-chain protected blocks, the simplier alpha amino protected aminoacids they were making themselves. They had a big shelf of 30+ bottles in cold room and if they started running low they asked a RA to make some more and re-fill the bottle.
    A simple case of mistaken bottle (leucine mixed with isoleucine) ruined their 6 week output…

  3. anon says:

    Nothing destroyed, per se, but a memorable experience:
    We have an NMR room with a machine in one corner and a computer for processing in another corner. I was printing a spectrum when a Korean postdoc came in to use the NMR. I glanced up to see him striding purposefully over to the machine with his sample in hand. And with the spinner not ejected. I looked back at my computer for a moment before realizing what I had seen. When I looked back he already had his hands in his pockets and was backing away from the machine. He produced the most plaintive sound I’ve ever heard: “Uh-oh!”
    I had heard of dropping sample tubes straight down the hatch, but I never expected it to happen in front of my eyes. The machine got fixed, but you better believe I chuckled every time I saw the poor guy until he left.

  4. Reluctant Chemist says:

    In the same vein as #3…
    I worked for a company where one of my responsibilities was to assist with NMR maintenance and troubleshooting. I happened to be in the lab one day when one of the chemists dropped her sample into the magnet, while the chemist at the console was still analyzing her sample. In the end, since the air was still flowing, I had to direct the system to eject the sample, while another scientist stood at the top of the ladder to catch the two samples as they flew out. LOL

  5. Yttrai says:

    I had a suspicion these would all be NMR related. But other than chiral columns, we really don’t work with wildly expensive items on a daily basis, and when we do we are ridiculously careful. Mostly. 😀
    I did once watch a coworker accidentally drop a solution of many hundreds of grams of rapamycin on the floor. Given that rapamycin was $1000/gram from reputable vendors back then, that was tragic.
    The most spectacular machine related incident was, of course, on an NMR. A post doc with a well-known lack of empathy was training a new grad student on NMR use, and told him the order of events: Tube in spinner, spinner in depth finder, then into the magnet. Then he left the room. The grad student thought he meant the depth finder also went into the magnet.
    The machine was down for 3 months. The grad student took the majority of the blame, expect among those of us who knew the post doc.

  6. eugene says:

    Okay, here is one not NMR related. Several times people forgot to turn off the water in the sink and it overflowed, flooding the entire floor. Sometimes an undergrad would turn on the water flow too high in a condenser until the tube snapped off and sprayed water everywhere, flooding the floor eventually overnight. One time, it was a particularly bad flood and it leaked onto the floor below like it usually does. Only this time, the leak decided to develop over two new HPLCs. A couple of hours and a lot of shorted circuits plus a small electrical fire later, the group that was below had a new HPLC charged on their grant.

  7. eugene says:

    I personally like this story though.
    In a lab that had some 20 odd people working in it, one student that was working late in the lab, decided to go home. Despite having so many people, and it being grad school, he was the only one there that evening. He turned everything off, including the oil bath in his fume cluttered fume-hood, and went home to relax from another tough day in a busy synthetic lab.
    Only, by some freak accident, that some called stupidity and others forgetfulness due to hard and diligent work, instead of turning the knob on the hot plate below the oil bath off, he turned it the other way. All the way to maximum.
    Sometime in the middle of the night, the hot oil started splashing out of oil bath and some of it landed on the really, really hot plate. And it started burning because it was past its flash point. As soon as the oil started burning, other things in the fume hood also started burning, and a small fume hood fire was born. It was small, but it grew predictably, and it led its own little fiery life overnight.
    The fire was happy to learn that the outside of the old fume-hoods was woody and flammable, and that it could surreptitiously find its way to neighbouring fume-hoods as well. But by the time it did, it was already morning, and chemists began arriving in the department.
    Unfortunately, the first ones to notice the fire, from a window on the outside, were not people from that lab. Not caring about the lab like it was their little child, meant that they called the fire department. When the fire department came, they couldn’t knock the door to the lab down, so the window had to go. Unfortunately, the chemical fridge were next to the windows, and it was predictably knocked over and the contents spilled as the firefighters climbed through the window. As they began dousing the room in water, a butyl lithium bottle went off here, a sodium chunk exploded there… Needless to say, the fire got bigger but in a different way. The firefighters won at the end of the morning, but the lab was dead. And the smell of festering and decomposing mercaptans all over the floor and hallway made that small part of the building inaccessible without a gas mask for the next month as it was slowly decontaminated.
    Someone told me that the PI was in shock for the next few days. I don’t know what happened to the offending student, but I’m guessing nothing good. The gigantic group was scattered in the rest of the chemistry department and their prolific publications output dropped precipitously. All that I know, is that I was visiting a month after the whole affair, and it was difficult to stand in the hallway outside the lab for longer than ten seconds due to the horrible stench of some thiol.
    This happened about a year and a few months ago. It took about a year for them to build a new lab with modern hoods and it’s in business now.

  8. Chemgeek says:

    Not an expensive accident, but an incredibly annoying one. A fellow student in organic lab was taking melting points using a Mel-temp. She got sick of waiting for the thing to cool down between measurements, so she pulled the hot (200°C) Hg thermometer out and cool it off under a stream of water in the sink. As predicted (by everyone but the student) the thermometer shattered and a nice stream of Hg went flowing on its way down the drain. My teacher (who was one of the calmest people I know) went into a rage and almost killed her. Only a small amount of Hg was recovered from the trap.

  9. HDP says:

    Here’s an admission of an incident that left me red-faced. Fortunately, it didn’t cost me my job.
    A number of years ago I worked for a major chemical company. My group of chemists and engineers were using a full-size operating plant as our laboratory for conducting a series of experiments. The process involved an expensive platinum catalyst.
    We didn’t realize how drastic an effect a small change in one operating parameter could have on the stability of the heterogenous catalyst. After conducting our experiment for a period of four hours the unit was behaving very poorly. A shutdown and inspection showed that during that time we had managed to vaporize over $250,000 worth of platinum.
    Fortunately, the catalyst was recoverable, and the information learned from the experiment ultimately proved to be far more valuable than the catalyst involved.

  10. Bubba Zinetti says:

    2 incidents. One, a coffee pot left on overnight burned a few labs and smoked out an entire building at Duke when I worked there. I think it was the Sands building, but it could have been Naniline. 2 labs destroyed, and the entire building without power for 2 days. Not every freezer was saved. Many people lost a substantial amount of work.
    Two: this was related to me by a friend at a large and successful biotech. They were moving thier dept, and had a large amount of Phenyl sepharose column media stored in the cold room. My friend said that it was “at least a 100L”. Well they moved and left the media behind b/c it was too heavy to move. A few weeks later someone finally went back to get it and it was gone. Turns out shortly after they moved cleaning crews came in with the instruction to throw out everything in the cold room. So they did!

  11. Jose says:

    I temped for a few months in the Analytical lab of an epoxy plant. Guys in coveralls would bring in steaming crucibles of in-process polymers for visocity, pH and the like. Standing out in the back lot amongst the weeds, there was a very large, 2000 gal SS reactor, with the all connections blowtorched off, getting rained on. I asked my boss about it, “Well, you see, when you polymerize a batch *inside* a reactor….”

  12. bink says:

    Well, this one happened while I was an intern a number of years back. Of course everyone has a story about how a hose popped off of a reflux condensor overnight and flooded the lab. Well, this is similar except this person was heating their reaction at reflux overnight at waaaay over 100 °C. A hose popped off in the middle of the night and water started pouring into the super-heated oil bath… I’m sure you realize what happened next.
    In the morning, the lab was flooded, but to make matters worse there was oil EVERYWHERE. The hood was a complete mess as well as a good portion of the floor in front of the hood.
    In this case, the most valuable thing wasted was time… time and sanity.

  13. chrispy says:

    Here’s an example of real stupidity:
    You may recall that the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) set fire to the Center for Urban Horticulture at the University of Washington in 2001 because they thought (incorrectly, as it turned out) that a professor (Toby Bradshaw) was making transgenic poplars. They removed all the animals from the building and set a fire in this fellow’s office which rapidly spread to adjacent labs doing research on conservation and wetlands biology. This included the lab of Sara Reichard, who had (among other things) 100 showy stickseed plants which she and her students had carefully cultivated; these plants are so rare that this collection represented a third of the total world population. The extent of the estimable damage was in the millions of dollars.

  14. 3rd year says:

    Recently our postdoc caught his oil bath on fire because he turned it all the way up instead of all the way down. Upon returning to his hood and witnessing the fire, he attempted to extinguish it with liquid nitrogen. Now, some say it was because he thought he would have to report it if he used the extinguisher, others said it was because he was really tired. At any rate, the liquid nitrogen vaporized, atomizing the oil and creating and enormous fireball, which burnt him rather badly and sent shards of glass flying.
    Luckily for him they were only second degree burns on his hands and face and the damage was only to his hood. Only a small (2 cm?) scar remains on his face – he wasn’t wearing goggles.

  15. dearieme says:

    Can’t explain, since no-one owned up. But I gave a few-months old Laser Doppler Anenometer to another research group, (30,000 GBP in the early 80s) and they wrecked it within a week. What you don’t pay for……

  16. Malfitano says:

    OK. This one’s a bit more biological, so I’ll put some explanation in for the chemists.
    I was supervising a student doing a vacation project. He was already well known as a complete cretin so I was watching him like a hawk. He was doing work that involved subcellular fractionation – smashing up cells then separating out the organelles, by centrifugation. A low speed spin of the smashed-up cells will bring down big stuff – nuclei, big chunks of membranes – into a pellet. A higher speed spin of the supernatant from this will bring down things like mitochondria, lysosomes etc. A higher speed still will bring down things like free ribosomes and leave the truly soluble cytoplasmic stuff in the supernanant from that. You can fine tune it to isolate the fractions you particularly want.
    The later, high speed spins are done in an ultracentrifuge. These look something like a top-loading washing machine. For the final stages of a fractionation, they spin the samples at 50-60,000 rpm, and the samples, and the rotor that contains them, are subjected to around 350,000g.
    So you can see it’s important that the weight distribution in the rotor is symmetrical – otherwise a dangerous vibration can be set up. I watched this guy carefully as he weighed the sample tubes and transferred sample between them so as to get pairs with weights matching to within 0.0001g. I checked these weights carefully, explaining in detail why it was important to do this balancing of the sample tubes. He put the tubes in the rotor, and I then checked that they were properly capped and sealed, that the rotor lid was on and properly secured and that all the centrifuge settings were right.
    Did I mention that the centrifuge bowl is evacuated, because at such high rotor speeds, air friction is enough to heat up the rotor substantially? So after starting the run, the rotor spins up to a certain speed then holds at that speed while the bowl is evacuated before it spins up to the maximum. This can take a while. Everything seemed OK, so we left it to it and went away.
    A couple of minutes later there was a loud bang. When we got there, the ultracentrifuge was going for a walk round the room. In fact, if it hadn’t been tethered to the wall by the three-phase supply, it would already have been out of the door and down the corridor.
    When we eventually got to look inside, the rotor, which was made of titanium, had shattered into several large fragments. The shaft on which it fitted, which was a circular steel rod about an inch and a half in diameter, was bent through almost a right angle. The manufacturer guaranteed that in the case of a rotor breakage, all the pieces would remain contained within the centrifuge bowl, and they had, but the rotor fragments had gouged huge metal shavings out of the inside of the bowl – like the ones you get from planing wood, but much bigger.
    I don’t know how much ultracentrifuges cost, but it would have been at least several tens of thousands of pounds even then (this was in the UK over 20 years ago).
    Technically this was my fault as I was supposed to be keeping an eye on him, but as I’ve said he was already notorious for being an idiot, and it never really came back to me.
    What? Oh, yes, sorry. He hadn’t put the members of each carefully weight-matched pair of tubes opposite each other in the rotor.

  17. Derek Lowe says:

    I’ve been waiting for a centrifuge story to show up! Thanks for providing an especially cringe-worthy one. . .

  18. milkshake says:

    Here is my centrifuge story (equally moronic). In old times (90s) the best way to access binaphtyl compounds was to make a lot of binaphtyl diamine, resolve it cas camphersulphonate and do Sandmeyer to get opticaly pure 2,2′-diiodo binaphtyl in a crappy yield. We just did it on a small scale, brought through a large quantity of resolved diamine and were to scale up the Sandmeyer too. The diazotation had to be done in neat (96%) sulfuric acid and the bis-diazonium had to be isolated and thoroughly washed before decomposition – and that ment isolated as bis- tetraiodomercurate salt. (Without isolation there was a racemisation problem – with a more traditional Sandmeyer procedure)
    Diazoniums are heat sensitive and diluting the mixture (before adding iodomercurate solution) was no fun – it was done by feeding the diazotation mix with chunks of overchilled ice while cooling the flask at -20C. This worked fine on small scale and we got the chocolate -brown heavy solid diazonium iodomercurate and converted it to opticaly pure diiodobinaphtyl.
    On big scale we could not cool it down properly, we run of dry ice, it took us over 5 hours to dilute this reaction (but we had 30grams of opticaly pure diamine in it). When we finaly added iodomercurate to it, we got lots of fine mud (instead of coarse crystalline solid), mud that was plugging even the Buchner funnels we had. Worst of all we saw bubbles of nitrogen slowly evolving from the diazonium mud…We had to act quickly.
    We went to the cell biology group – they had a huge centrifuge for 4 large buckets, half-liter each. We asked a biology guy if we could use it and he said: “But we have it for spiunning cells – you are not going to put in anything organic, corrosive, or containing heavy metals, right?” We assured him that not. We balanced the buckets on the scales very thoroughly, put it in, there was a nice whizz, we smiled and left for a well-deserved break. The break was suddenly cut short by loud thumping sounds as if large piano was falling down a staicase. The centrifuge was dancing polka across the lab, long cord extended. We shut it down, opened it and our diazonium-iodomercurate was everywhere -spilled in chocolate brown paint coating the walls, the rotor, the outside of the empty buckets.
    What happened was that we forgot to turn the cooling on. Heat generated by spinning made the diazonium to decompose and bubble over, which unbalanced the buckets, which made the giant cow centrifuge run for her life across the lab.
    The centrifuge survived, our product did not and we spent couple hours scooping the mercurate goo out and decontaminating the centrifuge with thiosulfate.

  19. Lou says:

    And those centrifuge stories keep coming in!
    I know of two accidents which wrecked the inside of the centrifuge, both because of the same reason – failure to screw tight the inner lid, and double checking to make sure it is tight and properly sealed. Consequently, the very heavy rotor inside the machine rotates and spins out towards the top of the centrifuge, wrecking not just the inner lid, but the drum, and the outer lid….basically anything in its wake. No one was hurt in either incident, as these ultracentrifuges tend to be housed in a separate room.
    Both were caused by Ph.D. students. You would think they would have thougth about the consequences of something rotating at 100k rpm and with forces of 800k g, but, no.
    The first time it happened ten years ago, I know the damage came to around 7000 pounds then (US$ 13000 at current exchange rate). Not cheap for any academic lab to fork out, and my supervisor was not best pleased about it. The student who later graduated with a Ph.D. went on to become a successful sales rep.

  20. molecularArchitect says:

    How many times have you seen someone improperly secure a gas cylinder without the protective cap? When I was an undergrad, the graduate student teaching assistant was changing the gas cylinder on a GC. He removed the cap without strapping the cylinder in place. He then proceeded to drop his wrench and bent over to pick it up. He bumped the cylinder. As it fell, the valve hit the lab bench and broke off. The cylinder took off across the floor like a rocket and went through a cinder block wall into the instrument room (a narrow room between two labs with two long tables). There, it took out the legs of a table knocking two analytical balances, an IR, a GC and several large glass dessicators to the floor. The GC bounced into the other table, broke the legs and sent two more analytical balances to the ground. All this while two lab classes were in progress and students were in the instrument room. Amazingly, no one was injured but the balances and IR were destroyed and the GC damaged. This was at a smaller teaching school in the mid-70s so it was a very expensive accident.
    A very scary thing to witness but I learned to respect the potential danger of a gas cylinder.

  21. Anonymous BMS Researcher says:

    I didn’t see this one myself — a colleague from the UK was among the large crowd gathered to watch as his University’s new mainframe computer was hoisted into the building by a large crane when the cable came loose and “half a million quid worth of computing hardware came crashing onto the parking lot, followed by stunned silence.” I hope the folks operating that crane had good liability insurance!

  22. Greg Hlatky says:

    This came from a former industrial life. We were testing a supported metallocene polymerization catalyst in a 4-inch continuous fluidized-bed gas-phase reactor. The product would be periodically discharged from the reactor through a valve into a stainless-steel vessel. A peculiarity of this catalyst family was that it generated hydrogen, which lowered the molecular weight.
    Late one evening, a not-very-bright technician noticed that the hydrogen level was building up. About this time, the product needed to be discharged. Our NVB technician thought to combine the steps of letting down the product and venting off the hydrogen, so they loosely fitted the stainless-steel bomb to the discharge valve.
    A little too loosely. The reactor pressure shot the stainless-steel bomb off the valve and sent it flying a considerable distance, narrowly missing a nearby hydrogen trailer. The entire reactor contents were also blown out and with it the catalyst that had taken blood to prepare.
    The technician was later canned.

  23. Anonymous BMS Researcher says:

    Another incident that I did not witness firsthand happened at the State University where my parents taught for decades. One Friday evening a Professor in my father’s department called maintenance to report a trickle of water dripping from a fire-protection sprinkler on an upper floor of the building. After some discussion, the maintenance people decided it could wait till Monday (despite this Prof’s strongly voiced suggestion that it ought to be fixed ASAP). Some time that night it cut loose and flooded several floors.
    An incident that I DID witness happened in grad school, again on a Friday night. I noticed the compressor motor for a cold room near my office was cycling on and off as its overload protection tripped, then it cooled off and restarted, etc. I called maintenance, they came and said, “well it is at exactly the right temperature so it can wait till Monday.” I strongly expressed my concern that an overheating compressor might not last that long, but they were pretty clearly not inclined to listen to a mere graduate student. Well, it failed over the weekend and by Monday morning many biological samples had become a smelly mess.
    The result was a big placard by the alarm bell on each fridge, listing the home and office phone numbers (this was before cell phones and pagers were common) for about six responsible individuals: “If this bell rings, keep calling each of the following phone numbers in succession UNTIL SOMEBODY TELLS YOU HE OR SHE IS ON THE WAY HERE…”

  24. atompusher says:

    We have a $300,000 waters LCMS that is collecting dust. The project manager who bought it has been claiming he’ll look into fixing it for the last 18 months. In the meantime, we’ve lost the trade-in value on a new instrument.

  25. Wavefunction says:

    Dropping an expensive Buchi rotavap on the floor.

  26. Devices R Us says:

    Not an accident by a scientist but by one of the accounying types. We had a guy who tagged assets who put the tag right into the center of a surface coated frequency double crystal that cost 10K. We complained so they came by later to scratch it off with an Xaxto knife. Not very much fun.

  27. Ryan K. says:

    That sounds like the girl who decided that it would be a good idea to wash all of our NaCl IR plates in the sink… with water.

  28. Rob says:

    The worst thing I’ve ever done is catch fire to the fume hood, that was in undergrad. No damage, but it was a near thing (considering the idiots left the flammable reagents all close together in a CARDBOARD BOX. The box caught on fire. Like I said, it was a near thing. I imagine the explosion would have seriously damaged me and possibly caught the building on fire. Yeah, that lab was pretty dangerous, looking back.
    Since then i haven’t worked much with really dangerous things. I once dropped a plate filled with 32P, i had to strip out of my clothes, change to scrubs, decontaminate the entire lab, and walk home in bare feet. 6 months later i got my shoes back. Humuliating, but not dangerous; and nothing was damaged (later i found out that 32P wasn’t all that bad, despite some people’s claims to the contrary).
    Oh, okay, this almost takes the cake. I was assigned to refill the liquid nitrogen cell storage tank, along with another guy, for a few weeks. I forgot about it, he forgot about it, until someone noticed that all the liquid nitrogen was evaporated (well, mostly evaporated). I don’t know what happened to the cells, they probably all died. Fortunately I left the lab soon after, and the cells weren’t for our lab (another lab which occupied the same space, this lab is close to shutting down now, the PI is retiring)
    The other liquid N2 story is more tragic, and happened to my current lab. Somebody was supposed to autoclave the racks that hold the boxes of cells of an EMPTY N2 tank. Instead, they autoclaved my PI’s tank, destroying years of cells. That really hurt; we lost irreplacable cell lines and antibodies.

  29. Anthony says:

    This didn’t happen to me, it happened to a friend of mine. We’d taken the three semesters of lower-division physics together. She took the upper-division physics lab course without me, as I’d moved on to my engineering classes. The lab course is not well-connected to the lecture series.
    The lab assignment was to build some sort of circuit, and analyse the waveforms which showed up on the oscilloscope. It involved an electrolytic capacitor. Nobody had ever told her, in a lecture class, or in the lab setup instructions, that electrolytic capacitors are polarized, and that it matters which way they’re put in.
    She built the circuit according to the lab handout diagram, except with the electrolytic capacitor in backwards, hooked up the oscilloscope, and energized the circuit.
    It fried her $10k+ (in 1980s $) oscilloscope. The circiut set up a resonance, possibly through the power system, that fried someone else’s oscilloscope. Two dead o-scopes, and a permanent ban on energizing circuits in the lab before a TA checked them.

  30. rocket-slave says:

    I was running a small scale rocket experiment and placed a very expensive infrared imaging camera a bit too close to the supersonic exhaust. This was an outdoor setup and a stiff wind had dragged the subsonic portion of the flame over the camera. It caught fire and we aborted the test. Unfortunately, the abort sequence featured sending out a slug of gaseous hydrogen (this was needed to protect some of the rocket hardware). With the wind still coming on strong, the slug of hydrogen made a large fireball that perfectly engulfed the camera. The camera was worth over $60,000. We have a great photo of the fireball cooking the camera that my boss keeps to humble me occasionally. Sorry, can’t share the photo.

  31. ChaoZ says:

    Well nothing too expensive, i used to work in a government lab researching ceramic compounds. The procedure is to melt samples in a platinium + 5% gold crucible, and the samples kinda drops out of the crucible neatly when it is back to room temperature.
    Anyway my supervisor was in a rush and ordered the wrong crucible, pure platinium instead of the pt/au alloy, the sample end up sticking to the crucible instead of popping off neatly because of the difference in the wetting properties. I think i ruined about 10 of the crucible which works out to be around $10,000.. but i suppose they can recycle some of the platinum.

  32. aramir says:

    Well, this one is more something like a legend in our laboratory, but I’ll share it anyway:
    “the Night of the sapphire”: In the early 70′, one of our most outstanding laboratories had a big container (something like a cilinder) for reactions and measurements under very high pressures. You could put some special equipment in there, and reach industrial pressures without any problem. Naturally, such containers get dirty quite often. And naturally, it’s always dirty when someone desperately needs to use it during the night.
    So there was this post doc, desperate… When you wanted to clean the cilinder, you had to follow a very strict procedure, in which you fill the tube with water, and then put the whole thing under pressure. Sounds easy, but there was a catch: the cilinder had a small looking glass, an artificial sapphire. Before cleaning it, you had to attach a safety clamp to the glass, otherwise the high pressure combined with the tube being filled with water would cause the sapphire to shoot out of its socket.
    And ofcourse, the postdoc forgot to fasten the sapphire. And there the fun began. After filling the container with water, and applying the preasure, the sapphire shot out like a bullet… through the window (on the 3th floor). Still not a problem you think, but, next to our chemistry labs is a forrest, surrounding 9 student dorms, where there was a big party going on at the same moment.
    Completely scared of losing the precious sapphire to some drunk student, our post doc called the entire labcrew, and they set out calculating an area where the sapphire could have landed, starting from the projectory angle and an estimated starting velocity. Out with the flashlights, and they went into the forrest. For the entire night.
    They found it in an old oak, 22cm (9″) in the bark, half a mile away from the chemistry lab.

  33. eugene says:

    Ha ha! That’s a good one. Although, if I was one of the people called up to look for the sapphire, I probably would have waited until I was alone, then wandered off to the party in the dorms and got some beer. Serves the post-doc right for cutting into my beauty sleep.

  34. Brad says:

    I remember connecting a voltimeter the wrong way and thinking that it had a light beneath the display dial… until I smelled burning plastic!

  35. Miles Baska says:

    This really doesn’t qualify, but it’s one of those lab stories I like to share anyway. Do what you will with it.
    I was a student at the University of North Dakota back in the early 70s. I participated in accelerated chemistry classes until my organic chemistry class, which found me in with the general population. These were, to me, boneheads and morons, but they managed to completely intimidate the little Chinese TA, so he rarely was around to supervise. It was our first experiment — a simple distillation: separate the alcohol from the paradichlorobenzene. You put the solution in a flask with a few boiling chips, hooked it all up and let it cook.
    The moron across from me had everything set up, but he wasn’t getting any distillate. A closer examination discovers he has no boiling chips, so he runs off, returning with a hand full of them. He opens the flask, leans over to look in, and dumps a hand full of boiling chips into the flask. You can guess what happens.
    The super-heated alcohol-PDC solution goes straight into the air and into his face. The alcohol quickly vaporizes, and the PDC crystals are snowing over everything in the lab. The moron has scalded his face, and he’s screaming “I’M BLIND! I’M BLIND!” — his face and hair are completely white from the PDC. His neighbor reaches up while he’s screaming and removes the moron’s safety glasses (the one thing he had done right), and as the moron screams… “I’M BLIND! I’M BLIND! I’M… oh”.
    The second experiment involved vacuum distillation of di-nitrotoluene, but if you cooked it too long it formed TNT. I watched morons trying to cook their reaction vessels dry, thinking this would maximize the distillate. I walked out before anything bad happened.

  36. Rocket Geek says:

    I once did an experimentwith a non-pyro ejection system, but I was tired and installed a 1.5 farad supercap backwards. The whole circuit exploded, and the capacitor’s electrolyte was everywhere. Capacitor electrolyte does not take kindly to carpeting, mind you.

  37. Joe Loman says:

    I had a buddy in engineering school with me who was in an undergrad physics lab that involved heating water in a steel container with a large thermometer in it. Unbeknownst to him, the tip of the thermometer broke off in the container and the mercury drained. Of course, since the temperature of his mixture didnt go up, he turned up the heat. After several other students threw up (one may have fainted) from mercury gas poisoning, the lab instructor figured it out and the local fire department evacuated the lab. My buddy was nearly dismissed from engineering school…

  38. My own screwups were modest, like the electrolytic capacitor that got connected to AC and ended up going off like a rocket and filling a lab with smoke, or the A/D board I inserted incorrectly into the backplane of our 11/34, which cost the lab around $500. At least I wasn’t the guy in the lab down the hall who mistook one of our escaped crickets for a cockroach and shut down a major lab for a week while the exterminators did their work.
    The best story I heard came from a colleague who’d worked in a lab in Maryland in the 60s. They had an advanced composite sample in a load cell being tested for compressive strength to destruction, and someone had been a bit sloppy about making sure the ends were perfectly parallel, and the sample was perfectly centered. At several thousands or hundred thousand psi, the sample left the load cell on a parallel path, taking out the wall of the cell, and several lab walls, amazingly missing all the staff.
    The worst screwup I ever saw personally didn’t cost any money… but you judge:
    Back when I was a grad student many years ago I worked in a hospital research center. I was looking in the gas hood of a friend’s lab one day, where they kept their radiochemicals behind a wall of lead bricks that surrounded it on all sides.
    Well, almost all sides; there was nothing behind the bricks except the wall of the gas hood! I grabbed the radiation survey meter they kept there and told the senior research assistant that I wanted to show him something.
    We walked to his boss’s office next door, and I pointed the probe of the meter at the point on the wall just opposite where I figured the pile of lead bricks was. It happened to be right where the visitor’s chair in his office was, and when I flipped on the meter it pegged the needle. Then I asked him, “How many times have you sat there?”

  39. Yakko_Rex says:

    In my experience I have seen the most dangerous decisions made by laser engineers. One fellow I worked with was locally famous for staying in the lab to see how his experiment with etching a complex pattern on a copper sheet went. He put on his goggles and stood next to the optic train, watching intently while a UV radiation from an excimer laser burned away at a shiny metal plate. He sported a world class sun burn for weeks.
    I liked a story my supervisor told me about his early days in lasers better, though. His company was running an outdoor experiment with a double yag, sending it from the top of the lab to the top of a building at the air force base, about a mile away. His job was to stand nearby the target at the air base, and to watch for planes landing, as they would have to stop the experiment if a plane came in, to avoid the laser hitting the plane. (The main traffic was later in the day – they did not expect any planes.)
    After a couple of days of standing on the roof, waiting for planes that never arrived, he had worked out in his head that the laser was eye-safe in intensity at the distance he was standing. So at some point he walked over and stuck his head in front of the target so he could see what it was like to look into a laser beam. He ended up using the CB radio they had handed him to call someone to help him get down off the roof. It took several days before his vision returned to normal…

  40. owch says:

    this one didn’t cost much — in the process of electroplating (using a gold-cyanide solution) a piece of copper for a He3 cryostat, I let the water bath completely evaporate. Luckily the whole apparatus was inside a hood when it exploded. Unluckily, I did not shut the door to the hood all the way, so cyanide solution still splashed all over the lab.
    Had to call the campus hazmat team, shut down the whole floor to the building for a couple of hours. It was in the middle of the night so no real disturbance there, but I’ll never let my bath run dry again.

  41. Roy says:

    This COULD have cost around $15,000. A new student forgot to securely fasten the rotor in a high speed centrifuge. After spinning up to 5000 rpm, the rotor jumped the spindle and was being spun sideways. When we got the machine stopped, we found the rotor and spindle ruined. The rotor cost $5000 to replace. The centrifuge WOULD have cost $10,000 but we had the best of all extended service contracts. I still keep the spindle head to show new students.

  42. Wallace says:

    I go to school at RPI. On my freshman initiation tour I was shown a building where wind tunnel testing takes place. Our tour guide let us in on the secret of one of the wall’s discoloration.
    “A few years ago some students were testing something in the wind tunnel and one of them left an aerosol glue can (very explosive) near the air inlet. When they turned it on, it was sucked through the propeller, ignited, and blasted out the other side. It took part of the building’s wall along with it.”
    I asked my friends about this story later, and they verified it. Apparently a brick landed uncomfortably close to the school president’s office, and immediate action was taken.

  43. Ted says:

    I’ve yet to see anything of major value destroyed, but keep having to send out e-mails informing my co-workers that Hydrogen Peroxide is still not a strong acid and probably belongs in a different secondary containment tray, so it’s probably just a matter of time. Hopefully I’ll get to live throuh it.

  44. Barry says:

    These aren’t lab stories, but they’re funny all the same. I used to work at a drive system engineering firm, where they designed and manufactured the parts for the industrial lines that do things like make giant rolls of steel or toilet paper. There was a guy there who had worked out on the shop floor who told me a few tales of disaster that he’d seen in his time there.
    1. In the days when digital motor controls were new, there were still a few bugs to work out. One day, one of the engineers was testing his work by powering up a drive system with a motor attached (the motor was mounted to a metal skid not too different from a shipping pallet, and these aren’t little dinky motors – these could be anywhere from a few horsepower to a few hundred). Anyway, the current limiting portion of the control software hadn’t been set up properly, so when he set it to spin the motor up to normal speed, the drive attempted to reach that speed *now*. A large BOOM rebounded off the walls of the shop: the immense torque rotated the entire motor, causing it to tilt sideways on one edge of the skid, and then when the circuit breakers heated up enough to trip a second or so later and shut off the motor, the whole thing came slamming back down.
    2. There was another incident involving a runaway motor in which the drive system spun up the motor, but didn’t level off. A few seconds later, a chunk of the rotor finally broke off, punched through the motor housing, and lodged in the ceiling 30′ up.
    3. Apparently, there was yet another incident in which someone powered up a motor, but it spun up too quickly or oversped and came loose from its mounting to the floor and began rolling across the shop floor. As the story goes, my friend looked up to see a guy running in panic across the shop, the runaway motor tumbling after him.

  45. DocLightning says:

    Fortunately this one didn’t result in any major damage, it’s more about what COULD have happened…
    I was in medical school, but was doing summer research at Stanford in a lab that shall remain nameless to protect the innocent, but suffice to say that the majority of the work in this lab happened on computers and that the whole lab had only one set of pipets (that got used every couple of months).
    The PI put a cup of coffee in the microwave. Except I think he must have been distracted and not watching what he was doing because he must have put the coffee cup down next to the microwave and then picked up a similarly-sized container where the lab kept spare coins for use in the vending machines and popped it in the microwave and turned it on.
    All I know was that I was sitting at my computer waiting for it to render a 3-D image when I heard a series of loud bangs from the general direction of the microwave. I turned around and saw flashes of light coming out of the microwave and ran over to turn it off. There was no serious damage, just some scorch marks to the inside of the microwave.
    Here’s the thing: the microwave was placed RIGHT NEXT TO THE FLAMMABLE MATERIALS CABINET. And so that afternoon, while waiting for the computer to do its rendering, I rearranged the lab to make it more idiot-proof.

  46. Joemax says:

    This is a favorite story of my PI. When she was a grad student, one of her colleagues started incubating a 1L E.coli culture on a 37ËšC shaker. Of course it was radioactively labeled. And of course at some point the flask came loose of the shaker and ruptured all over the equipment room. The offending student didn’t want to get in trouble so he tried to clean it up himself. A couple weeks later the radiation safety folks did their routine testing and found an unexpected hot spot covering most of the equipment room. Eventually they were able to trace the grad student’s footprints back to his desk, and traces of radioactivity were even found in people’s homes. He was not invited to any lab functions after that.

  47. geekintern says:

    I did a stint in a concrete testing company, who regularly tested samples to complete failure. Several moments of terror/hilarity ensued during my time there. While testing a 12inch diameter cylinder of ‘crete, I managed to misuse the multi hundred ton compression machine. There were three *unmarked* clicks on the op lever, off, pre/slowload, FAST load. Pull handle all the way down due to tiredness, hear an earthshattering kaboom, inspect self for damage, while noting the reinforced quartz (if memory serves) glass shield is NOT stronger than properly motivated concrete.
    Other moments involved the compounds of the trade, a super epoxy that we learned will nicely gum up the bottom of a rather expensive stereo microscope, and in fact, set stronger than the microscopes structure.

  48. centrifuger says:

    My centrifuge incident occurred last friday, and is the reason I have today off work. I’ll provide a little bit of background.
    The lab I work in handles concentrated sulphuric acid on a daily basis, spinning down samples hydrolysed with said acid from 9am-5pm at least, sometimes overnight, in two ultracentrifuges. At the beginning of the project some months ago, an incident occurred with some centrifuge tubes and the sulphuric acid leaked out during an overnight spin. Following this, the centrifuge began to make a screeching sort of sound, gradually worsening over the next couple of months. Eventually, a technician was called out who advised that the centrifuge motor should be replaced due to extensive corrosion. He was shocked to find that the centrifuge was 3 months old due to the damage.
    With this infomation, the PI decided to have us continue to use said centrifuge at the rate which it had been being used before – despite doubts put across by various other team members. We did as he said.
    On the morning of the incident, the second ultracentrifuge (not the corroded one) began acting rather strangely, reporting non-existent imbalances. After fighting with it and finally getting it on, I noticed a distinct rattling noise inside, and on opening it up was met with a nasty smell of burning rubber. With the rotor removed, I discovered the remnants of elastic bands around the drum, and a piece of wire pulled out from the base of the drum resembling a spy camera – it was the sensor which detects imbalance, rotor speed, temperature etc. Turns out the PI had had a PhD student tie up makeshift centrifuge tubes with rubber bands the evening before, which had snapped during the spin, and had not been taken out properly. At this point, we were left with one working ultracentrifuge.
    Thinking nothing else could go wrong, we transferred samples into the rather noisy corroded centrifuge, started the hour long spin, and left to grab a bite to eat. On returning 40 minutes later, my fellow lab assistant and I were met with a sound throughout the corridor containing our labs which can only be described as a couple of jet-planes landing very badly. We nervously entered the lab to find centrifuge number two jumping around the lab floor throwing bits of its underneath cabinet all over the place, and no electrics to stop it. Switching it off at the wall, we exited the lab, concerned that it might suddenly blow up, and waited for the noise to subside.
    The lid had to be wrenched open, and inside we found a complete mess of shredded centrifuge innards, completely unrecognisable. A well and truly dead centrifuge.
    As it turns out, the corroded motor had finally given in to the top speed spins and had completely sheared in half, sending the rotor flying around loosed within the machine, destroying everything in its path.
    Meanwhile, the PI was hundreds of miles away waiting for the samples we were meant to be running to arrive for him to show to project funders/co-runners. It was up to the health and safety guy to call him and inform him of the destruction of two centrifuges in one day majorly down to things he had and hadn’t done (namely centrifuging elastic bands and not replacing motors). I am not aware as of yet what the outcome of that phonecall was, but am fully expecting one of his well known (dreaded) project meetings tomorrow morning…

  49. rtrainee says:

    Oh man, I’m a latecomer to this one – just found this blog today and have been enjoying the “how not to do it” posts. Anyways. I personally have not ruined anything expensive, but I have one that happened to someone else and one close call.
    Background: I work at a research reactor facility. We primarily do neutron activation analysis with our reactor, in which one makes things radioactive and then looks at the characteristic gamma rays emitted to figure out what’s in the sample.
    As a part of our weekly tasks, we take out the trash, surveying it for radioactive contamination first. We recently got a few Eberline E600 detectors, and they’re very expensive and shiny. Digital display, background subtract, etc. Anyways, someone was surveying something oddly shaped, their E600 got too close to the thing, and it poked a giant hole in the mylar, completely breaking the probe. No idea what happened to that detector.
    My close call: I was analyzing some soil samples that had been removed from the reactor the previous day. I didn’t think they were that hot, but when I put them into the HPGe detector, the first one had a dead time of about 90%, meaning the sample was so hot that the detector had to take 9 seconds to recover after every second of counting. For an 1800 second count. Now, this was the sample changer, which holds 24 samples and will automatically put the next one into the detector when the current one is done counting. Since the changer can’t be stopped once you’ve put samples in it, I removed the next three samples to be counted and put them back into the lead cage where we store them and left the detector to do its thing.
    When I came back, it had just changed out the sample and was counting one of the empty spots. However, the computer was showing a spectrum like I’d expect from something actually radioactive. I panicked, thinking I’d contaminated parts of the detector. Even if we wouldn’t have to replace it (HPGe detectors are -expensive-), it would have still been an embarrassing waste of time. Two clean wipes later, I determined my sample was so hot that some of the gammas were getting through the shielding and the detector was picking those up. That sample went back in the pit too, and the count was done successfully a halflife later.

  50. Doonesman says:

    I used to work at a vehicle testing facility. One of the tests we would do is strap a vehicle to a large metal plate and rotate it sideways to see at what point it would fall over (the straps stopping it from actually falling over, obviously.) Most large vehicles in the UK need to pass 30 degrees in order to be certified.
    So, a company brings in their new milk tanker prototype. It had all kinds of wonderful new features that we (the grease monkeys) were totally unimpressed by, focusing on getting the job done. We strapped down the tanker, checked the load was correctly balanced, and triggered the computer.
    As a Heavy Goods Vehicle, the tanker had to remain stable at 30 degrees. It was, but there was some unpleasant creaking noises. Then the chief engineer of the tanker company asks us to rate the tanker to 45 degrees so they could put in for a special licence type. The team looks at me, I looked at my supervisor. He shrugs, I give the OK, we crank the plate another fifteen degrees…
    And the substandard bolts that the engineers had used sheared off completely and the tank rolled clean off the chassis. The chassis was firmly strapped in place, but two tons of steel cylinder went rolling across the testing apron. It nailed two sports cars and wrecked the front of a fire engine that was due to be tested next. They never asked us to test their vehicles again.

  51. That shouldnt happen says:

    The organic chem lab on level 3 was old, it had benches and equipment, instruments and computers that were ancient but it was only for first and second year undergrads who used it mostly, no need to update small things like safety equipment for basic wet chemistry. The fume hoods were installed at the end of the bench rows, on the outside wall of the lab, venting directly out the side of the building.
    After years and years of abuse from undergrads the mortar behind the ancient fumehoods was slowly eaten away by vaporised acids and other organic nasties.
    a spill of some organic acid led to the clumsy student following the correct precaution, closing the fume hood and hitting the vent button before turning around to explain the situation to the demonstrator.
    as the unfortunate student began saying how she knocked over her earlynmyer flask the vent kicked into gear and started shuddering, the windows rattled and a crunching squealing sound cut her off.
    The whole lab stood in awe as the violently vibrating fume hood extraction motor tore itself and the wall it was set into free and fell three storeys down into the car park. crushing a mercedes.
    daylight streamed in through the open back of the fume hood as we all collected our things, stopped our reactions and left.

  52. Gene says:

    I’m an environmental regulator, so I see the aftermath of Bad Things Happening regularly. This one happened at a plating company in an unnamed SW city in the US in the mid-80s. One of the things they did was decorative gold plating using an ~1000 gallon tank of gold solution with ~1.5% gold. When you do the math, that’s about 125 pounds (~1800 troy ounces) of gold. Their chemist/waste treatment/tank god needed to top off the tank so he turned on the DI water tap and went on to other things. He also forgot about it. Unfortunately, this was a Friday afternoon and no one was in the plant until Monday morning when someone noticed that the tank wasn’t its normal dark color, but was full of transparent liquid. Worst of all from my viewpoint, there was a hidden drain in the containment that led directly to sewer. That, and the discharge of an untreated bath to sewer were what I wrote them up for. What the chemist got fired for was the ~$650,000 worth of gold that literally went down the drain (well that and the exhausted DI resin columns.)
    No injuries, no equipment damage, no environmental damage; just lots of dollars.

  53. Mike says:

    I feel like such a piker here, but I will include my small story for the benefit of those who, like me, read the comments section of 3-year old blog posts.
    I was working as a research assistant for one of my chemical engineering professors. The research I was working on involved a lot of urea hydrogen peroxide.
    I was trying to recover a solid product that had been worked up in an aqueous UHP solution, using a vacuum flask and a Buchner funnel. I carefully poured the solution into the funnel and obtained a nice layer of solid particles on the filter paper. Then I grabbed my spatula and prepared to remove the filter paper.
    The entire apparatus was under a partially-closed fume hood, so I didn’t have a lot of room to maneuver. So, without thinking, I tilted the flask sideways. And clogged about five feet of vacuum line with solid UHP as it immediately dropped out of solution. And contaminated the vacuum pump oil with the aqueous UHP solution that didn’t crystallize on the vacuum tube walls.

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  55. Anonymous Coward says:

    A friend of mine emailed me this post, saying I needed to share some stories. I work in electronics, and have previously worked in a shop, so I have some vastly different stories.
    One person at a shop was trying to cut some steel bars with an oxyacetylene torch. the torch wasn’t getting a good fuel supply, so they went and turned the regulator up. that didn’t fix it, so they went and turned the on-tank regulator (we had tanks stored in a separate location) up to about 20 psi. I ran over and shut the tanks off, although I was tempted to run away, since he had just turned all the Acetylene pipes into a ticking bomb. Turns out the torch valve was broken because someone else tightened it with a wrench because it wasn’t sealing fully when turned off.
    My favorite one is I saw someone in an electronics lab trying to diagnose some massive circuit made from discreet components. Some aspect of it wasn’t working, and to diagnose it, they grabbed a hideously expensive multi-channel oscilloscope. They had wired something wrong, and the circuit was producing far more current than it should. Naturally, the oscilloscope went and produced the mystical blue smoke of electronics, and it was at least $17,000 USD for that particular oscilloscope.
    I personally was wiring up the end of a cable carrying about 240VAC and rated for around 100A. I followed the wiring diagram and labels, but someone at the other end didn’t. Thankfully, all it did was result in the GFI breaker tripping every time the breaker was thrown. So they removed the ground connection. I thought it was fixed and was running a welder off of it when I heard a loud buzzing, then crackling, then the outlet started melting. I went to go check the breaker, and it had somehow fused closed. The main breaker threw a moment later, and the fire got put out. I never opened the breaker to see exactly what went wrong in it, but I can say I always inspect every bit of a wiring job now. I can’t even figure out how they managed to make the outlet melt, either.
    Experiences learned: Poke circuits with a voltmeter before using the expensive and sensitive tools. Check tools when you go to use them to make sure they are working fine. And never, ever remove the ground or assume wiring is good unless you personally inspect it.

  56. ChristianPFC says:

    I once was a few seconds late to prevent a student washing NaCl plates for IR with water, I quickly took them out of his hands and rinsed them with acetone, we could still use them.
    Missed a magnet quench (NMR) by minutes, joined the others standing outside and watching the liquid splashing out of the NMR and the fumes (condensed water) rising to the ceiling (the floor was clear, but the ceiling was cloudy, why?).
    Heard a story about a 1L or 2,5L bottle of CDCl3 that was used in place of CHCl3 for non-NMR purposes.
    During my masters (or rather Diplom in Germany), we had fume hoods whose sash automatically went down after a certain time. While I was away, it did so and exactly hit the on-off-switch of a heatgun (design that looks like a hair-dryer, not like a pistol), when I came back there was a small fire in my hood.
    During my PhD, we had to change the cylinders of Nitrogen (protective gas). One day, two of our not-so-bright members connected cylinders of compressed air instead of Nitrogen to the line. It took us (two labs, more than 10 PhD students) several days to figure out what was wrong. I made a cuprate which turned green and did not give product. Fortunately, nobody worked with tBuLi (which probably would have caught fire under air instead of Nitrogen).
    During my Post-Doc, we were not allowed to use tap water for cooling, only small buckets with aquarium pumps were permitted. Years before, a flood (from tap water for cooling) caused considerable damage. I think a bucket with an aquarium pump is a brilliant idea for cooling water.

  57. UndergradMinion says:

    Amazing stories, fortunately I never killed something really expensive. Still, there are stories…
    I once broke the ancient mercury thermometer of our ancient Kofler melting point microscope by just brushing against it with my sleeve. The protective metal housing was in place, but not screwed tight…
    I am not particularly good with thermometers at all. Two deep temp thermometers exploded in my hands when I tried to fix them. In both of them the alcohol in the capillary was interrupted by air. Everyone else has given up on them, so I thought, try it. Can’t break something that is already broken, can you?
    The first one was gently warmed with a heatgun until the alcohol fills the whole capillary and reunites. (At least this was the plan…) I ALMOST did the job, when it exploded due to overpressure.
    Ok, so do it the other way around. The second one was immersed in liquid N2, but it wasn’t cold enough to do the job. So I took it out and – it exploded.
    I think the largest amount of devastation I caused was in school. We had old-fashioned labs with all our glassware stored in IKEA-like closets under the bench. The middle shelf was a wooden board just sitting on four pegs. No further support, no means of fixing the darn piece in place. My first day, I inspect my equipment, and whilst standing up I push the board a little bit. One should think that the back wall of the closet provides some support for the shelf. Nope. The back wall was just *standing* there, no nails or stuff. So the board slid backwards, off the front two pegs and then followed gravity. Everything on the board slid down and broke, while the board itself came down and crushed everything beneath. Just the desiccator survived (*whew*), yet without stopcock.
    The funny thing is, I was not humbled, in fact I was thanked for pointing out this massive construction flaw. Afterwards some things got changed…
    To finish this extensive post, I do feel the need to point out that, maybe traumatised by this first encounter with lab glassware, I got through years of school and university without breaking more than one or two beakers, so I learned my lesson 😉

  58. Stoneshop says:

    The story about the ‘crashing’ computer reminds me of one I encountered.
    This was at a Ministry of Agriculture department, and shortly before I started there had been a rather failed delivery attempt of a new computer system and storage array. What had happened? After unstrapping the system racks from their tiedown points in the truck and trying to get them onto the loading dock, the truck driver found out he had the truck misaligned. So, intending to correct this, he moved the truck away from the dock.
    Now, Newton’s first law states that objects at rest remain so unless acted upon by an external force. As the racks had not been tied down again, they remained, as the law states, at rest while the truck moved out from underneath them. That is, until there was no truck floor underneath them anymore, at which point good old Isaac stepped in with his gravitational force, allowing the racks a three feet drop onto concrete.
    They didn’t take well to the sudden deceleration after those three feet were up.

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  60. woodsong says:

    Oh, the stories here!
    I’m not a chemist. I have a job as support staff for a chemistry research group, or as I like to put it, I do just about everything the research group needs, except chemistry.
    The story I have for this series didn’t involve any of my fellow group members, except that we were all aware of a problem.
    I was sitting at my desk in the basement of the chem building, when a loud, muffled boom startled me. I’m not sure if the vibration I felt was the building shaking, or just me jumping out of my chair! Either way, when the fire alarm went of half a second later, I grabbed all of my personal belongings and left the room. Nor was I alone–my boss and all of the SRAs for our group were having a business meeting across the hall, and they all came boiling out, looking seriously alarmed.
    My boss saw me and asked “Was that one of ours?” I told him no, that was upstairs, and I was getting out of the building NOW.
    I found out later that the explosion was on the 3rd floor of the building, in a room where there were “several solvent stills” running, I presume in a hood. A grad student had come in and started a procedure involving an open flame, then left the room. A few minutes later….***BOOM***
    The lab sits on a hill, maybe a hundred yards from the road on the side of the building where that room had its windows. Broken glass was found on the other side of the street. And the door to the hall was blown off its hinges.
    Fortunately, no one was in the room or passing by in the hall at the time, so no injuries, although the faculty member who had an office directly below the room had the ceiling tiles come down on top of him.

  61. Chembat says:

    I was once troubleshooting a piece of semiconductor process equipment in the 100k price range, when I invented a brilliant method of determining whether the coil of a solenoid valve is energized or not. Connect a multimeter to it while powered. I TRIPLE checked the meter was on the volts range, not amps. I did NOT notice the probes were connected to the 10-amp sockets… Smoke rising from the driver IC indicated the coil WAS, in fact, powered.
    Within two hours I visited a local electronic supplier, and swapped the deceased IC with an identical replacement that cost just a couple of euros/dollars. But for those two hours it did have me worried.
    There was also the incident of someone (not me) pouring waste acetone and waste nitric acid (concentrated) into the same glass bottle and sealing the cap tightly. A total of about three liters of the stuff. Nothing bad happened immediately, but the whole building shook when it finally detonated hours later. No-one was in the path of the shrapnel. (Rumor has it, a week later the same undergrad was caught doing the same thing again! But this time before the stuff went off.)

  62. Hugo says:

    Computers generate heat. Top-500 supercomputers generate lots of heat. Top-500 supercomputers are also quite expensive, so they tend to be put in solidly-built rooms with big steel security shutters over the doors. As a result, ventilation isn’t too good, so you need lots of big aircon units in the room to keep things cool.
    Now, just in case things go wrong, you really should have temperature sensors in the room to detect whether it’s too hot. Since people rarely go into the room, you want some method of getting the alert out of the locked room. Oh look, we have lots of networking gear in this room. Let’s wire the temperature sensor alarm up to the network so it can alert us over the network.
    Aircon fails late evening. Temperature goes up quite fast. Precisely one piece of equipment in the room fails before the temperature sensor triggers: sadly, this was the main network switch.
    The alarm never got sent beyond the machine room, and the overheating was only noticed at about 7:30 am by the security guard, who thought it was a bit odd that the large steel security shutters on the room (in front of the fire door) were hot to the touch.
    Fortunately, after the fire brigade had visited and blown the very hot air out, the only two things that were badly damaged were the core network switch (a mere thousands of pounds, compared to the several millions for the supercomputer proper), and a pair of plastic ear-defenders, which had melted onto a hand-rail near one of the hot aisles.

  63. educator says:

    No stories to compete with some of these monetarily, but a couple for thought
    I started as an EE, and spent some time in a power lab. One of the machines we had was a large motor-generator set that was used both as a large electrical load during testing (not the design function, but it did the job) and as an isolation and conversion component when we needed to test high power equipment that we couldn’t power with out mains power. The unit was a roughly 100HP three phase motor coupled to a generator that could be configured for a variety of output voltages and phasings. The two were coupled by a really big finger coupling. Each half had three fingers, and look kind of like a giant chess rook. At the interfaces are rubber inserts to cushion shock, and the surface is not smooth since the inserts and the steel do not match up. The fingers are clearly visible when the machine isn’t running, but when it is at speed (IIRC 1200 RPM), the coupling looks kind of shiny and the fingers aren’t visible. There was also a big, bright indicator light panel showing run or stop state, showing motion status as well as power status, it wasn’t particularly quiet, and there were guard screens blocking direct access to the moving parts.
    One of our more sophisticated students was waiting to change the setup after a test run. Rather than use all of the direct and indirect indications of whether the machine was in motion, To find out if it had completely stopped, he decided to reach around the guard at touch the coupling. With his (now former) index finger. There was no hope at that time of reconstruction, and I doubt it could be done today. Ended up losing several fingers in the end.
    The other is from when I was working as lab support in a university research hospital. A lot of radioactive tracers, and a lot of electrophresis, and a lot of autoradiograms. This was before the big BioRad machines with scintillating plates. One of our MD-PhD types would run huge numbers of gels, and, consequently, had a lot of autoradiograms exposing at any given time. Space was tight, but he had the perfect place to keep them safe for the exposure time: on a rolling cart under his desk. There was just enough room he could pull his chair in. When the lab director found out, it was NOT a good scene. Last I heard, he and his wife were adopting. I don’t know if there is a connection.

  64. Ivan says:

    I’m surprised to see no AFM disasters. A guy I know from my undergrad days killed an AFM probe, by absent-mindedly driving it into the sample surface.

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  68. Anonymous says:

    Pretty low comparatively in terms of monetary impact, but I think it’s amusing because of the confluence of poor decision making that caused it:
    In my undergraduate inorganic lab class, we had to characterize the compound we made, methyl (pyridine) cobaloxime by NMR. The claim was that the stuff wasn’t soluble in more conventional NMR solvents, so we had to use DMF-d7. Now, as an aside, said claim was not true: it would have been fine in more typical solvents, since the papers I used to get literature values from used them.
    Of course, the NMR machine isn’t set up well to lock on to DMF, and it’s throwing up error messages every few seconds because it’s confused about which of the three types of distinct deuterons that exist in DMF-d7 at that temperature to lock on to. Of course this, combined with the fact that everyone fact that we’re taking carbons of the thing (in retrospect, the reason for the DMF might have been so that we could jack in enough sample to get 13C in something close to a resonable amount of time) makes the process take quite a while. That didn’t particularly bother me, though.
    One of the TAs mentioned that they had overnight shipped our little ampule of DMF-d7, and the thing had costed about $300. Not the highest price, but I wouldn’t spend that on an NMR solvent for an undergraduate class. I’d had a couple of years of research experience at that point, and I knew that said price was pretty high, and probably not an appropriate cost for the return of letting us get carbons of this thing. My first thought of course is , “this thing is going on the ground.”
    Not five minutes later, there’s the crash of breaking glass. I looked over at that hood, knowing exactly what it would be, and lo and behold, there was the remains of the DMF ampule on the ground. The guy who dropped it tried to worm his way out of trouble by claiming that ‘it was already empty’, which the TA would have none of, because oh, what are those little drops of liquid on the floor amidst the glass shards? He didn’t get fined or anything obviously for this last mistake in the chain. I think the penultimate mistake was entrusting that ampule to the students unsupervised.

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  70. HAK says:

    Years ago, while working as a Formula 2, I befriended a large Australian who was a brilliant engineer, and a raconteur par exellence. He told me a story from his days as a supervising engineer at a dynamometer testing facility, which although not set in a lab, fits in nicely here, none the less.
    A dynamometer is essentially a device for mesuring the output of an engine. While smaller units used for testing automobiles and motorcycles tend to be inertial devices where you measure the time required to accelerate a heavy flywheel, for the steady state testing done by his company you need a braking device to absorb the engine’s output while you take your measurements. This tends to be a large, toroid water brake.
    In this particular instance, they were testing a multifuel ship’s engine to determine its expected service life. These are truly monstrous things, with displacements best measured in cubic meters per cylinder, and this one was duly hooked up to an equally monstrous water brake, and set to work.
    A few weeks into the experiment, the dyno input bearing temperature alarm went off. The watch technician rushed to the scene, determined that the bearing was running nice and cool, put it down to a sensor fault, bridged the offending sensor and made a maintenance note to replace it.
    This got ignored, as months passed with nothing bad happening. Then, one fine evening, the bearing started heating up. At first, an overheating bearing is not so dramatic, resulting only in the lubricant thinning to the point of uselessness, but from that point the progression follows an exponential curve, the usual result being a seized bearing. This occured just past midnight.
    Now what happens when an unstoppable ship’s engine meets an immovable water brake? The dyno comes loose from the floor, of course. They never determined just how many times it was spun around in situ, but what happened next is quite certain: The coupling shaft bent 90 degrees at the u-joint, they dyno was flung straight up, the u-joint failed and the dyno whent through the concrete floor of the admin block above.
    The night watch, seeing no point in calling the bosses at that hour, went upstairs with an angle grinder and cut off the web of rebar fringing the hole in the floor. They then levered the dyno back whence it came, and waited for people to come to work.

  71. Gregg Eshelman says:

    Not so dramatic but a “missed it by that much” incident from 7th grade metal shop.
    The classroom had several long tables, topped with sheet metal, with a bench vice at each end.
    The demonstration with the entire class around one table was on the proper use of the center punch.
    The teacher first firmly held the bunch and gave it a firm whack with a ball peen hammer, making a good mark on a scrap of sheet metal.
    That was followed up by how not to do it. Hold the punch lightly between thumb and index finger then barely nick it with the hammer. The result was supposed to be the punch just falling to the table top.
    Well somehow that tiny tap had plenty of energy and the punch shot straight as a bullet down the length of the table, pointy end forward, ricocheted off the steel surface and up to exactly eye level of another student on the left side. He was leaning in to get a better view.
    The punch put a perfect hole in the left lens of the safety glasses he had on. No injury, not even a speck of glass in his eye. The punch slipped right past his head.
    Must have been like having the target’s eye view of a bullet. How that punch flew straight, especially after bouncing off the table…
    After that I decided the clunky plastic safety goggles weren’t so dorky looking and wore them instead of the glass lensed “safety” glasses.

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