Statement from the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety regarding the “Tornado Experiment” Explosion in a Science Museum in Reno, Nevada
On Wednesday, September 3, 2014, we learned of chemical incident at a science museum in Reno, Nevada, that injured a number of people including children. The experiment described as creating a “smoke tornado”. At this point we only have reports from the news media to try and understand what might have happened.
Here is our understanding at this point:
The experiment involved the use of a cotton ball, methanol, and boric acid
The experiment involved pouring methanol on a cotton ball, then adding boric acid, and
finally igniting the mixture.
However the demonstrator apparently forgot to add the methanol to the cotton ball and
decided to pour the methanol from an open bottle onto the cotton ball that was partially
ignited on an open bench top.
At that point the flame ignited the methanol vapors causing the ensuing deflagration –
The flash fire injured 13 people, mostly children.
This incident is very similar to and reminiscent of recent “Rainbow Demonstrations” incidents that caused CCS to release a warning about these experiments and a call to cease “Rainbow Demonstrations” using methanol on open bench tops.
Assuming that our understanding is correct, then, we have yet another experiment involving the highly flammable methanol improperly used in demonstrations on open bench tops.
Any experiment using a flammable solvent on an open bench where there is a source of ignition presents an unnecessary risk to the demonstrator and audience.
CCS calls upon all of our educators to help us to reach out to all members of the scientific community to look more carefully at all demonstrations involving the use of methanol on open bench tops. The educational value of these particular demonstrations should be carefully weighed against the risk of flash fires from ignition of methanol vapors. At no time should methanol be poured from an open bottle on an open bench top in the presence of a flame or source of ignition – the risk of a flash fire is very great.