Lab Tales: How A Chemistry Lab Experiment/Explosion Changed My Life

This month’s inChemistry magazine (to be posted soon, check your mailboxes!) contains an editorial encouraging you to read a publication of the ACS Safety Board entitled Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions. To bring attention to this issue, we’re reposting a story of a lab accident from the Chemistry Grad Student and Postdoc BlogLet us know your thoughts.


Whenever I hear about lab accidents it makes me feel a little nauseous. This is because I have several inches of permanent scar tissue on my arm and a smaller scar on my face to remind me how chemical burns can have a lasting impact. I don’t think about it most of the time until someone I am talking to or waiting in the elevator with fixates on my arm and then turns away like they weren’t looking.


 It happened one night some years ago when I was a third year grad student. I needed to do a deprotination to make an alpha hydroperoxy. I had flushed out the system using Argon. I had carefully set up the drop-wise addition of a pyrophoric compound via cannulation. All at once, a bright flash, loud sound and extreme pressure and heat invaded my senses. I remember being stunned and gazing into the glass hood where I could see the hair near my forehead was on fire. I ran to the shower—like I had seen in too many lab class introduction videos as a T.A.—stripped off my lab coat and shirt, and pulled on the shower knob. I saw some of the skin was peeling off my left arm. A postdoc in the next door lab gave me his jacket, helped me over to his car and proceeded to drive me to the hospital emergency room. Another postdoc helped clean up the water on the floor (thank you kind postdocs!). The drive to the emergency room only took minutes but felt like an eternity. I kept asking the postdoc driving the car if my face was ‘real bad.’ I knew my arm was scarred but I was more worried I had permanently scarred my face. At the hospital I was treated for second and third degree burns to my arm and my graduate adviser arrived. Luckily there were mostly only first degree burns on my face but I did look like I had a severe case of acne for a while. (Nothing is quite the same kind of awkward as sitting with your very distinguished adviser in the middle of the night with burns over your arm and face while dressed in a hospital gown in the emergency room.)


You might wonder if and how I was irresponsible that night of the accident, what I could have done to prevent it, or what I could have done differently. All I know for certain is that my view on the importance of safety training in academia has changed greatly since then. After the accident, I no longer see any part of lab safety training as just a theoretical discussion or mandatory obligation.

When in the lab, there is so much at stake. We have not only our immediate safety to think about (avoiding fires, spills, etc.), but also potential repercussions to our future-permanent scars, cancers, reproductive systems, etc. It is so important to take advantage of the safety resources we have.

Side note: Other than my dissertation, my most prized possession that I took from the lab is an old pair of safety goggles I wore that night. It has a big white splotch where there was back-splash from the explosion just over the lens that was protecting my right eye.


Do you have a “near miss” story you want to share?  Leave it below.


Dippin’ Dots: A Simple Guide

Michael Kraft is from Plano, Texas and is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the University of Texas at Dallas. He is also the president of the Chemistry Student Association, a student chapter of the American Chemical Society.

After a significant amount of trial and error, the Chemistry Student Association at UT Dallas developed a simple, low-cost method of producing Dippin’ Dots at a large scale. After perfecting a successful process, our club decided to advertise and give out free Dippin’ Dots during our first meeting, and the attendance was high!  Surprisingly high! Chemistry, free food, and school colors (orange and green for UTD) ended up being a winning combination.

So, we have taken everything we learned and provided it for you in the guide below. We hope your chapter will try making Dippin’ Dots using the procedures we’ve given you for your chapter meetings, or even for National Chemistry Week this year!

Dippin’ Dots Maker


  • 2 clean and empty 2-L bottles
  • Clean, deep Styrofoam cooler
  • Sharpie
  • Tape
  • Cardboard
  • Ruler
  • Thumbtack

Safety Notice:

When you handle liquid nitrogen, wear goggles, cold gloves, and closed-toed shoes and make sure all participants are wearing these items as well.


Dippin’ Dots are made by slowly dripping melted ice cream into a vat of liquid nitrogen. The design we have outlined can be modified to fit different needs. We chose to use two 2-L bottles to drip orange and lime ice cream, but the setup can be changed in a myriad of ways. As long as drops of fluid are dripping into the liquid nitrogen, the Dots will be formed!

To make this assembly:

  1. After cleaning out the bottles, use a thumbtack to make an evenly spaced matrix of holes on one side of the bottle. The patch should have 4 or 5 rows of holes and be 3 inches wide. The length will depend on how long the cooler is; you don’t want to drip ice cream all over the walls.
  2. Rotate the bottle 180 degrees and make another matrix of holes. The end product should be two patches of holes, on opposite sides of each bottle.
  3. Make a frame that will allow the bottles to rest securely over the mouth of the cooler. Make sure the bottles are level. The above picture shows a cardboard rectangle with two large notches for the neck to rest on, and a dowel for the other side to rest on. (When making the frame, note that duct tape will become very brittle and useless if it’s anywhere near the cold gasses released by the liquid nitrogen.)
  4. Using a ruler and marker, make a mark 3 inches up from the bottom of the inside of the cooler. This is the fill line for liquid nitrogen.

Preparing Dippin’ Dots

Materials: (makes about 2 L)

  • Dippin’ Dots Maker, including the two cleaned bottles
  • Enough liquid nitrogen to fill the cooler to the 3 inch mark
  • Clean storage dewar
  • Large funnel
  • 1 L of melted ice cream
  • 1 L of melted ice cream, another flavor
  • Lots of napkins or paper towels
  • Ladle
  • Mixing spoon
  • Serving utensils (bowls, spoons, etc)
  • Safety glasses

Procedure: Note: This process takes a while. The vat will stay cool/ contain liquid nitrogen for at least 3 hours, so feel free to do this long before the event begins.

  1. Put on safety glasses.
  2. Using the dewar, fill the cooler to the fill line (3 inches deep).
  3. Wash your hands.
  4. Using the funnel, fill the bottles with melted ice cream. Cap bottles.
  5. Place the bottles over the mouth of the cooler, with one of the hole patches facing down. The ice cream will drip into the liquid nitrogen and freeze.
  6. From time to time, use the mixing spoon to agitate the liquid and break up any chunks that might form.
  7. After a while, the holes in the bottle will freeze over, and no more ice cream will drip out. Rotate the bottle so that the other, unfrozen holes are facing down. Use paper towels to wipe away the frozen patches and allow them to melt.
  8. Once all the ice cream has been dripped in, you can put aside the bottles and use the ladle to remove the Dippin’ Dots. IMPORTANT: After they are prepared, the Dots will be dangerously cold. If exhaling onto them produces visible “smoke,” they are too cold to eat and will burn your mouth. Never serve them when they’re too cold.

    Shown: Way too cold to eat!

  9. The finished Dippin’ Dots can be stored in a regular freezer.

Dippin’ Dots can be the perfect treat for chemistry clubs to prepare and serve. Their preparation involves common and affordable materials, and the science behind how they’re made is a great conversation starter. They’re a lot of fun for everyone involved!

We’re always trying new things like this in our club: Check out to learn more about what we do!

Oh, and since we’re on the topic, don’t forget to submit your outreach event into the NCW Event Locator, which allows others in the local section to find local outreach events via Be sure to check the “National Chemistry Week” keyword and mention the time and place of the event in the event description, so those interested will know when and where to attend.

(Editor’s note: Mike sent us more pictures, and we enjoyed them so much we had to do a slideshow.  We hope you like them, too!)

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Photo Friday!

Hello Everyone!

Today’s pictures come to us from the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico ACS Student Chapter!  If you want your chapter featured, email us today!

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The first two pictures come from Pontifical’s recruiting drive at their homecoming event.  Note: chemistry drives interest!

Pictures 3-5 are from a march called “Dándole Alas a Una Causa” which translates to “Giving wings to a Cure” from the Go-GOGO foundation against pediatric cancer.

Pictures 6-8 are from an island-wide beach cleanup.  We’re just going to say it: Puerto Rico has some amazing beaches- thanks for keeping them amazing, Pontifical.

The rest of the pictures detail the chapter setting up demonstrations, first for Bioscience Week, and then for local schools.  And those kids obviously love it!

Thanks for the pictures, Pontifical Catholic University ACS Chapter, and keep up the great work!

The Carbon Dioxide Jubilee- 3 Fun CO2 experiments

Hello again from the secret ACS demonstration laboratory!  National Chemistry Week is fast approaching, so our next few posts will focus on fun activities you and you chapter can perform.

Our topic for this post is so amazing, it requires three demonstrations to adequately explain it: Carbon Dioxide!  There are plenty more demonstrations where this came from, so stop by the American Chemical Society store and pick up What’s New, CO2? for more carbon dioxide demonstrations.

For our trifecta of carbon dioxide demonstrations, you will need:

  • safety goggles
  • thick gloves, preferably cryogenic liquid handling gloves
  • lab coats
  • a small aquarium or glass bowl
  • a few blocks of dry ice
  • tongs for handling the dry ice
  • warm water
  • dish detergent
  • a straw
  • bromothymol blue indicator
  • a few candles
  • a small glass
  • a 5-gallon bucket
  • a lighter
  • a fire extinguisher

Safety Notes:

Use eyewear and a lab coat. Make sure your audience is at least 6 feet away. Do not handle dry ice without gloves. Use tongs to handle the dry ice. Make sure the room you are in is ventilated. Read the MSDSs for all materials before starting. Do not reuse the glass for drinking. Take all standard fire-safety precautions.


Experiment 1: CO2 plus water=Acid

  1. Fill your clear aquarium about a third full of warm water.  Add 10-12 drops indicator dye.  Explain to your audience that bromothymol blue is an indicator that detects the presence of acid. Ask them what they think will happen when you add the dry ice.
  2. Use the tongs to drop in a chunk of dry ice.
  3. Note the effect of dry ice on the dye. Explain how CO2 leads to increased acidity of water.

Experiment 2: CO2 plus fire = no fire

  1. Your clear aquarium should be full of CO2 by now. Light your candle(s).  Explain to your audience that fire requires three elements: oxygen, heat, and fuel.  Ask them what they think will happen when you take away the oxygen.
  2. Use your glass to “scoop up” some CO2.  This works best if you hold the glass in the CO2 for a few seconds.
  3. “Pour” the CO2 onto the candle.

Experiment 3: How heavy is CO2?

1.  Fill your 5 gallon bucket about a third full of warm water.  Add a few chunks of dry ice and allow the bucket to fill with carbon dioxide.
2. Ask your audience what is in the bucket (correct answer: water and carbon dioxide).  Ask them if they think it is lighter or heavier than air.
3. Dip your straw in your dish detergent (DO NOT INHALE), then blow soap bubbles into the bucket of CO2. Ask your audience why the bubbles float on the CO2.

Our video:

ACS Undergrad- CO2 Jubilee from ACS Undergraduate Programs on Vimeo.

Take a look at our video for our take on this.  Feel free to comment about how you think it could be done better!

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Happy Lab PPE Day, Everyone!

As we mentioned a few days ago, today is Lab PPE Day, the day designed to encourage  everyone headed off to work in an unfamiliar lab over the summer that yes, Personal Protective Equipment is pretty cool.

We’re still accepting pictures of y’all in PPE until 5 pm EST (so send them in!), and you can send in your best PPE pictures to the Lab PPE Day tumblr site.  But for now, our favorites have come from our frequent contributor Marisa Sanders and the gang from the College of New Jersey.  Cool may be too strong a word, but Anthony Judilla, Matthew Kita, and Stefan Turan have a whole new take on labcoats.  Enjoy, and Happy Lab PPE Day!

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PPE Day- Send us Your Most Fashionable Personal Protective Wear Pictures!

The job at which I worked before I came to ACS had a great safety culture. Everyday I came to work, the sign above the door proclaim “over 7 years no lost work time.” The management purchased a Caribbean cruise for the entire company after 5 years with no safety problems. And I recall the CEO advising everyone, from the newest operator to the most senior salesman, to walk the plant at least weekly and report any potential safety hazards.  It was clear that my first job at that company was making sure everyone went home safe.  The safety culture of a workplace matters, as it does to Anna Davis at Dow Chemical:

“I was fortunate to work for professors that took safety seriously,” Davis says, “But I think that the culture varies too much from one research group to another” in academia, and consequences are minimal when something bad happens. In contrast, at Dow it’s emphasized from day one that, no matter what your job is or where you work, safety is a job expectation and is a critical part of your job performance, Davis says.

And we need a culture of lab safety because people do experience injury in labs, and these injuries can even be fatal. On April 28th of this year, Richard Din was killed by a bacteria he was studying.  His death is a tragic reminder of the potential hazards present in labs across the country.

We realized that we really needed to push lab safety culture, especially with many of you going to work in unfamiliar labs this summer. With this in mind, on June 4 we at the ACS Undergraduate Programs Office will join with other chemistry bloggers and social media users to celebrate Lab Personal Protective Equipment Day, and we’d like you to join us!  To emphasize the importance of safety gear, email us pictures of yourselves wearing your most fashionable personal protective equipment (PPE) by June 3rd, and we’ll post it, and we’ll also recognize our favorite pictures. We’ll also submit pictures to the Lab PPE tumblr account. These pictures can be old or new, silly or serious, doing work or chemistry demonstrations, as long as they show that above all else, you care about yourself and the people with whom you do chemistry by thinking about safety.

Follow this event on Twitter at #LabPPEday.

Note: we will only display pictures that actually follow lab safety guidelines. So- lab coat, gloves, goggles/safety glasses, hair up, closed toed shoes, no dangling jewelery, etc. If you have any questions, we have a Personal Protection section in our pamphlet on safety.


The blog editors, Nicole and Chris (shown below, in our PPE finest in ACS’ secret underground demo lab, along with other members of the ACS Education Division in their PPE)