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More on T2, and Degrees

Friday’s article on the T2 explosion has had a lot of readers, thanks to links from various outside sources. One line from it has attracted a disproportionate amount of comment – the one where I mentioned that the two owners of the company had only undergraduate degrees. This needs some clearing up; I should have explained myself more clearly in the original post.
First off, there are two things I most definitely didn’t mean. I do not, of course, mean to imply that anyone without a graduate degree is incapable of running a complex or hazardous chemical process. Nor am I assuming that there’s some sort of magic in a graduate degree program that turns a person into someone who actually can run such things. I’ve seen enough smart people who didn’t go to grad school (and enough fools with PhDs) not to believe either of those.
The key thing here (besides intelligence, which is necessary, but not sufficient) is experience. And what experience gives you, among other things, is a sense of knowing what needs to be worried about. That’s what the T2 people seem to have lacked. It’s no exaggeration that every time I’ve described this accident to an experienced scale-up or process chemist, their response has been outrage and incredulity. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, and my apologies in advance to any relatives or colleagues of the deceased, but these people were conducting a very hazardous chemical process, and the lack of care they showed while doing so is stunning. No calorimetry to look for exothermic reactions, a totally inadequate rupture disk for venting that large a reactor, no attempt to set up the process as a flow or feed (which also would have given you built-in temperature control), and no backup for the absolutely crucial cooling system.
Now, it’s quite possible that if the people who set up the T2 reactor had been through a graduate program that they would have gone on to do the exact same thing. But it might have helped a bit, which might have been enough to keep four people from being killed. Graduate work is supposed to involve research, experiments that haven’t been run before. If you get a degree that’s worth anything, you’ve had the experience of having to figure experimental setups out on your own, and that means that you should have had some chances to think about what might go wrong with them. And the larger the scale of your chemistry, the more you should think about that last point.
Having a couple of reactions take off and spray the inside of your fume hood brings home the problems of heat transfer and pressure relief in a way that no textbook can quite match, and that’s not something that you’ll experience as an undergraduate in most colleges. Now, it’s true that you can experience that at work, too, where the lessons will be even more vivid. That’s why in an industrial setting an experienced chemist without a doctorate is almost always much more worth listening to than a freshly arrived PhD – if they’re any good, they’ve seen a lot and they’ve learned from it.
The people running T2 not only did not take proper precautions, they had been told that they needed to bring in a consultant to look over their process. In other words, “get someone in here who can see things that you’re overlooking”. But they didn’t do that. It’s also possible that they might have brought someone in and ignored their recommendations, too, and there’s no degree program that can keep you from acting like that, either. They’d run this thing over and over just the way it was, and they probably thought that everything was under control. But it wasn’t. And they had no idea.

30 comments on “More on T2, and Degrees”

  1. rob says:

    There seems to be a mistaken impression here that graduate school maps to experience. I have no idea about chemistry, but that is the exact opposite of true for CS and EE — in both cases, PhDs are often regarded as requiring extra supervision since they are even more unused to delivering in the real world than people with a straight BSc.

  2. emjeff says:

    Were their degrees in Chem or Chem Eng? I think the latter might have more experience in the process end of things…

  3. bearing says:

    One owner was a chemist, the other a chemical engineer who should have known better on many different levels.
    Which is why the board’s recommendation — to add reactive hazard analysis to the undergraduate chemical engineering curriculum — simply does not address the core problem here. The scale-up (covered in ChE undergrad) was inept. The pressure relief system (covered in ChE undergrad) was inept. The cooling system was guaranteed to accumulate mineral scale and become less efficient if not clogged because it constantly boiled municipal water and vented steam (yes, fouling of heat transfer equipment is covered in ChE undergrad).
    I wonder if most of the readers here are chemists or other pure scientists, and if so, if “experience” is largely confined to postgraduate life? Re: gaining experience, a feature of many engineering undergraduate programs is the co-op or internship. I acquired a fair amount of practical experience, including safety-related training, during my yearlong co-op, all before receiving my BSChE.

  4. Hap says:

    I think undergrad degrees have less opportunity for experiences outside of known chemistry than do grad degrees (which are likely to force contact with things that haven’t been done before). Lots of undergrads have research experience, and some novel research, but in grad school, that’s the lifeblood (if you can’t deal well with failure and the unknown, you won’t be around). Safety and industrial experience don’t correlate well with chemistry degrees (or may correlate inversely), but the grad degree is likely to come with exposure to things you don’t know (so that you might have an idea what to do when you don’t know something) to give you experience with reactions with less-known hazards – while undergrad degrees may include these experiences, grad degrees require them.
    Of course, education can also lead to (or reinforce) arrogance. It also can’t cure stupid – if you really don’t care about the hazards of something, it can’t make you care. If the comments near the end of the previous T2 post are correct, they were told to get better data on their reactions, but they ignored the advice, either because they didn’t care, didn’t know enough to take the reaction hazard seriously, or mistrusted consultants enough to ignore their advice (but why did they hire them then?).

  5. SRC says:

    It occurs to me that this might be a place where undergrads could rapidly and safely receive some experience by running virtual, i.e., computer-simulated reactions.
    A student could be tasked with running a given reaction, and provided with some information, but have to request other information on his own. For example, he could have the reaction scheme specified, but have to realize the need for calorimetric information and request that, and choose the size of equipment, temperature monitoring, cooling capacity, order of addition, etc. himself.
    Any serious mistakes could be met by having the computer roar full-blast through its speakers, thereby announcing to all and sundry that the student had messed up (providing some social pressure not to do so).
    What do others think of this idea? It would be a rapid and efficient way to sensitize future chemists to these issues without exposing them to hazard.

  6. CMCguy says:

    Experience is indeed the best teacher and those that do not have it certainly are better off when then listen to those that do. One common problem with PhDs they are taught to be totally “self sufficient” which is good is some senses but also can create in many an arrogance where they are less inclined to listen, particularly to those without advanced degree. Although typically when starting grad school one learns for older grads and post-docs in the lab (and some cases even the profs) yet this mode seems to be inhibited once the degree is conferred. IMO Teamwork is often an overlooked or missing component in science education (engineers less so) that is vital.
    One commenter of previous blog well noted kinetics and thermodynamics which all chemists hear about in courses. I know chemE’s learn heat transfer and pressure control but much like the chemists most of teaching in theory condensed to a few calculations. Even though may have minor eruptions in the lab there still is a gap in the practical implications. Events like this one should make everyone think more diligently however although may last for a time it can fade unless there is a culture of safety (also noted on another comment) to sustain ingrained attitudes.

  7. CMCguy says:

    SRC- computer simulation might be interesting and useful- perhaps some savvy person(s) can come up with a “game/course” and only students who die a certain number of times will pass the class.

  8. Kay says:

    I was going to ask if they had any process experience. Even chemists with graduate degrees can lack real world experience in large scale reactions. Often in grad school you only get exposed to what your group is doing, and if your group doesn’t do large scale, you may not learn about it. My research group was very focused on small reactions – our research was focused on method development and almost all of the reactions were done on very small scale, just enough to get a few mgs. The only larger reactions I did were well known, well practiced reactions to make starting materials. Even as an undergrad, the labs were all “microscale”. Although I might have known in theory how reactions can change on larger scale, I didn’t get any practical experience with any reaction larger than 100 mL until I got into industry.
    However, since one of them was a ChE, you would think he would have known better. That’s supposed to be the advantage of engineers over chemists.

  9. Sili says:

    only students who die a certain number of times will pass the class.

    Do you want a maximum or a minimum? I can’t decide which would work better.

  10. bearing says:

    CMCGuy: “only students who die a certain number of times will pass the class.”
    Sili: “Do you want a maximum or a minimum? I can’t decide which would work better.”
    Me: I vote for a maximum of a certain height, in the graph of “number of times you die per session” vs. “number of sessions played.”

  11. Kismet says:

    @1 How’s that even possible? Someone with a PhD alawys has a Bsc, don’t they? So how can they be *less* experienced if not just by forgetting whatever they learned?

  12. z says:

    Re: Kismet, #11, “Someone with a PhD alawys has a Bsc, don’t they? So how can they be *less* experienced?”
    Generalizing of course: Some PhD’s don’t spend any time in the lab once they get their degree. Most BS/MS level people spend most of their time in the lab after they get their degree. Therefore, many of these folks quickly surpass these PhDs in terms of actual practical hands-on experience. But many PhD’s can be quite arrogant about their knowledge, and how dare some lowly BS chemist even try to point out a mistake or oversight!
    Obviously, many (most?) people do not fit easily into these stereotypes, but I have seen it many times, and it usually doesn’t end up working out well for either group. Having a PhD does not automatically mean you are smarter than everyone who does not have a PhD. There are many valid reasons why some people who have the capacity to finish a PhD choose not to.

  13. Anonymous BMS Researcher says:

    I’m not a chemist, I’m a PhD biologist with an undergrad degree in engineering whose hands last touched a pipette about 20 years ago — my world now is computers and data mining. But in the database world there are also hard lessons to be learned about scaling: ways of doing things that work OK with small databases become nonlinearly difficult as databases get bigger. Of course the lessons I’ve learned in this world have been far less dangerous because my mistakes have not been physical disasters that killed people. My mistakes have merely have consumed enormous amounts of computer time or become too painful to maintain manually, until I refactored them.

  14. bearing says:

    Re Kismet #11:
    A person with a PhD spent 4-7 years or more in graduate school while the BS guy was gainfully employed, getting real experience.
    I can’t speak for chemists, but at least for chemical engineers, this is very meaningful. 7 extra years of experience as a working engineer very possibly makes you permanently more valuable than the guy who graduated in your class but went on to graduate school.

  15. Gibbon1 says:

    I’m going to say that you should accept that your comment about under graduates meant that your slip was showing.
    Fundamentally we aren’t talking about people fresh out of school but people with years of experience doing something over their head while wearing backless chaps. That has a lot more to do with attitude than education and the culture of the local permitting agencies.

  16. bearing says:

    Actually, one piece of information I don’t remember seeing and that I consider relevant is how long the owners had been out of school before they started running this process. I saw where they didn’t have previous experience running a reaction vessel, at least not as a joint venture — but what previous experience did they have before starting T2?

  17. Kismet says:

    @bearing, oh, that makes sense. I thought we were talking about someone who *just* finished their PhD/BsC. If you factor in the experience it makes more sense (+the fact that many PhD’s apparently tend to overspecialise in a limited area to get their PhD – at least in biology they do).

  18. emjeff says:

    After reading the report, I am convinced that the argument over what degrees these chemists had is completely irrelevant.
    It is obvious that these two guys were trying to run this operation on a shoe-string. Consultant after consultant told them what they needed to do to make the process safer. They did not listen to any of them, probably because it would have cost money and they seemed to be out to maximize profit.
    In all likelihood, these two gentlemen would have run their business in the same way, whether or not they had graduate degrees, because there is nothing in ANY hard science curriculum that teaches you concern for your fellow man beyond profit.

  19. DylanE says:

    Re: “One common problem with PhDs they are taught to be totally “self sufficient” which is good is some senses but also can create in many an arrogance where they are less inclined to listen, particularly to those without advanced degree.”
    My dad has run a business for the last 25 years or so where he works with a lot of industrial chemists and various engineers. They almost all have more formal education than he does, certainly in that field, but usually little to no practical experience in the type of work that he does, which is of course why they hire him. Invariably they will “suggest” that he adopt some new technique or process that will theoretically improve yields. These are almost always ideas that he has tried in the field (often multiple times) and found that they just don’t work for various reasons. Yet it is the rare PhD who can listen to this man with 25 years more experience than they have, telling them why their idea won’t work. I never really believed him when he would tell me stories about stubborn engineers before, figuring he just must not be stating his case clearly, until I spent a couple of summers working with him and saw it first hand.
    When I was a kid I told him that I wanted to grow up and become a Chemical Engineer…the look on his face suggested that I’d told him I wanted to grow up and be Stupid.

  20. Jack Bauer says:

    Perhaps the real problem here is simply the bottom line. Upgrading the reactors would have been costly. The supervisor could have all the experience in the world, but if the powers at be won’t chip out the money, what can he do? Shut down the reactor? Get fired? The problem here is the problem with every business, do it as cheap as possible. If the reactor worked 10 years straight, why would they fix it? It seems to be working right? Obviously that’s not very logical, but the point remains, money will always win over safety.

  21. processchemist says:

    “My dad has run a business for the last 25 years or so…”
    This is not the first time that I hear these words. Often in this field (pilot plant and large scale operations) non graduated people with years and years of experience think that they’re superior to every (not only freshly) less experienced graduate …
    This kind of attitude is often associated with overconfidence and cutting corners style. Or with the strong belief that in the last 20 years nothing new has been discovered/implemented, and that thermodynamical calculations, DOE, new PAT’s, new solvents are costly, absurd, useless crap.
    In my opinion, the general trend in the business tends to demostrate that they’re basically right.
    Because currently low cost is the first law. Low cost without safety, without correct environmental behaviours, without high technological content, often without quality. And accidents are economically affordable (about accidents in Chindia, ever heard about any kind of report? We know something only when thousands of tons of benzene cover the water of a great river).

  22. DrCMS says:

    I still feel that undergraduate chemists/chemical engineers do not get taught about process safety enough. If there were classes that went through worked examples (The CSB reports and videos would be a good start) of industrial accidents and covered why they happened and the amount of energy they can release and the damage they can cause those undergrads would have a better understanding and would be less likely to be involved in a major accident later. The people in charge of T2 did not have enough experience and understanding of reactive chemical hazards to realise what corners they were cutting and what the consequences might be. I have met some ruthless hardnosed business types in my time but I do not think any of them would deliberately do something that they knew might kill one of their staff. I do not think the bosses at T2 were any different, they did not know what they did not know.

  23. bearing says:

    DrCMS#22: “I still feel that undergraduate chemists/chemical engineers do not get taught about process safety enough.”
    I’ll speak about chemical engineers, rather than chemists, because that is what I know about.
    Maybe you’re right — there’s not enough process safety in the curriculum. But ask someone who teaches first year graduate students, and you’ll hear them bemoaning that undergraduate chemical engineers don’t get enough mathematics. Ask someone who’s in charge of reading or editing their quarterly reports, and you’ll hear that undergraduate chemical engineers don’t get taught enough writing or technical writing skills. They don’t get enough fundamental training in unit operations. They don’t get enough background in process control. They don’t get enough exposure to the new and exciting directions that chemical engineering is taking (nano/info/bio/eco). They don’t get enough training in professional ethics. They don’t get enough training in environmental issues. They don’t get enough economics. They don’t get enough practice in scale-up. Oh, and by the way, they also don’t get enough foreign language, or social sciences, or history, or women’s studies courses.
    …. You see?
    The undergraduate chemical engineering curriculum is packed. Packed to the gills. You are, I think, familiar with principles of conservation of mass and energy? Something similar happens with credit hours….
    Facetiousness aside, some decisions have to be made somewhere about which trade-offs make the most sense. Personally, I am in favor of having a barer-bones curriculum that focuses on the traditional core of chemical engineering, but with plenty of choice among a variety of technical electives (one of which could well be process hazard analysis). You know, only a fraction of chemical engineers actually go on to design processes and be involved with process hazard analysis in any way whatsoever.

  24. DrCMS says:

    @bearing So what you’re saying is chemical engineers are taught too much in too little depth. Which means when the graduate they’re not much use for anything because they’ve not been taught anything in depth. Yeh I’d agree with that; all my dealings with chemical engineers have left me thinking they’re not much use as a chemist or engineer. However, too many companies think they’re getting the best of both worlds rathar than the worst.

  25. Deming says:

    This is very tragic indeed and my heart goes out to the families, friends co-workers etc.
    1) We all need to reflect that this had been done a number of times and nothing happened.
    2) One degree versus the other versus experience and who should have known are scholastic arguments. All of those issues can be solved by training (not the training in the classroom) but something like a hands on apprentice program.
    3)The issue could also have been the personality, arrogance, I know best etc.. perhaps the manager recognizing this and addressing this….
    3) Understanding your process and with a proper risk management and decision making process based on those ricks might have prevented this.
    4) The root cause is in the statement “They had been told that they needed to bring in a consultant to look over their process” jumped out at me. The company had prior knowledge and did not take action, the reason for this I can only speculate, but I am sure the lawyers will. There is never enough time/resources to put the steps in to ensure things are done right the first time, but when things go wrong Oh look at all the resources.
    Perhaps I missed but I did not catch that the operators were the owners in the original article?
    A degree is a good thing it gets you in the door, I have tried to not let it fog my communication I will share a story: 12:30 am and the plant shut downs and when an unnamed green mechanical engineer grabs his multimeter/toolkit/calibration equipment and climbs forty feet in the air and the plant operator walks up and spots the plastic air plug for the valve is off, hunts it down and puts it in and the plant starts up again. “oh I see” he says. I will never forget that.

  26. bearing says:

    @DrCMS #24: “@bearing So what you’re saying is chemical engineers are taught too much in too little depth.”
    No, actually, that’s not at all what I’m saying. I think the chemical engineering curriculum provides a fantastic education. It’s packed to the gills— with good stuff.
    What I am saying is that the curriculum is full. This means that if you want to put something in, you MUST take something else out. And every interested person has a different opinion about what “extras” should be added and what “nonessentials” should be removed.
    Unless, of course, you want to turn the BSChE from a 4-year to a 5-year program.

  27. TFox says:

    I’m still curious about the economics, which people have alluded to here, but the safety report didn’t investigate at all. Cost plays into everything if you’re actually trying to run a business. It could be that the “get another consultant” recommendation was just one of a long list of expensive, ass-covering disclaimers, none of which were really feasible given what they were able to charge for their product. At some point the customers start to bear some culpability: we can only get as much safety as we’re willing to pay for. But you really have to look at the books to see how much pressure they were under.
    Note that their website is still open:, copyright 2007. You can still download the MSDSs the responders were looking at during the incident.

  28. Brooks Moses says:

    Derek, I think I wrote a comment in this thread a few days ago, but the moderation queue ate it because I linked to too many Wikipedia articles (on examples of other disasters). Any chance you could unstick it? Thanks!

  29. Derek Lowe says:

    Brooks, your comment unfortunately appears to have gone into the bit-bucket. I checked the Junk list, and an influx of hentai spam (don’t ask) seems to have pushed everything that’s more than 24 hours old off the end of the list. . .sorry! If something doesn’t show up fairly quickly, drop me a line, though, and I can bring it back up.

  30. phdche says:

    Having worked hands on with materials even more dangerous than this, I find the battle over what a PHd should or shouldn’t know irrelavent. If the PHd has been doing paper work for years, then keep them there. What I have found working for small chemical companies is the lack of safety leadership by the owners of the company. “WHAT: shut down production to track what Might be a problem?” Hell no that costs money!

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