A Ticking Firebomb
Annalise Rogalsky finally got the potassium metal to react, but not during her experiment.
In 2017, I was a third-year undergraduate student at Gonzaga University in Stephen Warren’s group. Our team studied farnesol, a molecule used to potentially treat seizures in mice suffering from alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Farnesol treatment is short lived, and to find out how it is metabolized, I attempted nonenzymatic synthesis of its metabolite farnesol glucuronide.¹
To achieve this, I chose potassium metal as the strong base to remove a hydrogen molecule from glucose for facilitating the reaction. One late night during spring break, I was catching up on washing used glassware. I rinsed a container with an organic solvent and poured the refuse into the plastic funnel connected to the waste container inside the fume hood. Next, I repeated this step with water.
The moment I poured the wastewater into the plastic funnel, it caught on fire! Horrified, I realized that there was unreacted potassium metal in the glassware. The waste jar contained a mix of solvents and water. It was a fireball.
I froze for a moment but then quickly sprang into action. Terrified, I pulled the burning funnel off with tongs and extinguished the flames with a beaker of water. The fume hood was a mess, but I averted a potential lab explosion. When I nervously broke the news to my advisor, he was surprisingly calm. He simply laughed and said, “That must have been exciting, huh?”
That memorable incident served as a cautionary tale about lab safety. Even during my graduate studies, this story reminded me to keep a cool head when my research work was literally or figuratively on fire.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
- Staines AG, et al. Biochem J. 2004;384(3):637-645.
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