SRI INTERNATIONAL ANNOUNCES FINDINGS IN PROBE OF FATAL
LAB EXPLOSION: REPORT CITES BUILDUP OF GASES, PRESSURE IN CELL
MENLO PARK, Calif., June 18 /PRNewswire/ -- A fatal explosion in a laboratory at SRI International on Jan. 2 was caused by an "unanticipated and undetected" buildup of deuterium and oxygen gases which ignited inside an experimental electrochemical cell, according to the research organization's scientific investigation of the accident.
SRI attributed the gas accumulation to the failure of a chemical catalyst and blockage of a gas outlet tube inside the closed cell. When researchers moved the cell for examination, it most likely restarted a chemical reaction that overheated some platinum catalytic spheres, which then detonated the gas mixture, according to SRI's report on the findings of its team of experts.
"We believe that this tragic accident was the result of an unforeseen and unusual combination of circumstances that both allowed the gases and pressure to build up and blinded our scientists to the danger," said SRI Senior Vice President Jon Clemens, who headed the Investigative Committee.
The explosion blew the welded bottom off the six-inch-long steel cylindrical cell, which was then projected upward, striking and killing Dr. Andrew Riley. Three other scientists were slightly injured by flying glass and other shattered parts of the experimental apparatus.
The researchers had been engaged in scientific studies of power production in electrolytic cells containing deuterium, a form of hydrogen, and the metal palladium -- an area of research that has been popularly labeled "cold fusion." Noting that there was no radioactivity released in the explosion, SRI also indicated that the physical evidence failed to support a hypothesis that "cold fusion-related" heat production may have been involved in the explosion.
"The most plausible explanation of the accident, based on the evidence of the distorted cell, the injury to Dr. Riley, and the distribution of pieces in the laboratory, is that an explosion occurred in the upper part of the cell where an oxygen/deuterium gas mixture was located," the report said.
In order to make highly accurate measurements of the power-in (electrical) and the power-out (heat) of the electrochemical process and to contain any reaction products, the experiment was performed in a closed electrochemical cell set inside a vacuum-glass calorimeter, which was placed in a temperature-controlled water bath.
The cell contained an electrolyte of "heavy water" composed of oxygen and deuterium in its bottom half, along with palladium electrodes, and various supporting internal parts made of Teflon. When electricity flows through the cell, oxygen and deuterium gases are generated and rise up to the top half of the cell where they eventually come in contact with platinum balls which catalyze the gases back into heavy water.
However, a post-explosion analysis of monitoring-device data indicated that the catalyst had failed, allowing oxygen and deuterium gases to accumulate rather than recombine into water. In addition, the opening to a gas outlet tube, which could have allowed the gases to escape or indicate a high-pressure condition, apparently became partially sealed by a Teflon piece that supported wires and other parts near the top of the cell.
SRI said that the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal-OSHA) is having independent studies performed on the cell, which it has retained as evidence.
SRI also empaneled an Independent Review Committee, chaired by Barnet Adelman, president, Adelman Associates, and a respected authority on rocketry, explosives, ordnance, armor and related fields. The other committee members include Francesco Tamanini, an explosion and energetics expert from the Factory Mutual Research Corp. and William R. Fawcett, professor of chemistry at the University of California, Davis, expert in electrode kinetics.
SRI's findings have been released to Cal-OSHA, local government authorities, the press, and members of the worldwide scientific community.
Following the accident, SRI and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), which had been supporting the examination of deuterated palladium (D/Pd) systems over the past two years at SRI, suspended further research pending the outcome of investigations. SRI and EPRI are continuing to evaluate the future course of their research in this area.
NOTE: More detailed information is available. SRI will mail a 16-page copy of the SRI Scientific Investigative Committee's Report upon request.
/CONTACT: James Kloss of SRI International, 415-859-2547/ CO: SRI International ST: California IN: CHM SU:
RM-M -- SJ003 -- 1622 06/18/92 16:00 EDT