Accident occurred during routine preparation of cell growth medium but the cause is still unknown

© University of Hawai’i Manoa

A 29-year-old postdoc at the University of Hawaii at Manoa has been gravely injured in a lab explosion, the exact cause of which is still unknown.

Thea Ekins-Coward, a visiting research fellow at the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute (HNEI), a research unit within the university’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, lost her arm during the accident. The incident occurred around 6pm on 16 March in a basement lab at the university’s Pacific Ocean Science and Technology building. Health and safety investigators still don’t know what caused the explosion. At the time, Ekins-Coward was carrying out an extremely common procedure, which involved transferring hydrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide gases into a small, low pressure cylinder to make a growth medium for cells.

Researchers in the department have been carrying out the same procedure virtually every day for nearly eight years, according to Brian Taylor, the dean of the university’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology.

‘An experiment was in progress to grow cells by feeding them a mixture of low pressure hydrogen, carbon dioxide and oxygen,’ Taylor told reporters at a news conference the day after the incident. ‘They were taking higher pressure small cylinders and putting a combination [of the gases] into a smaller low pressure cylinder to be the feed for these cells to grow in.

‘Since 2008 the process has been used almost daily and without incident. Clearly something unexplained happened,’ he added. ‘There was an explosion so there had to be an ignition event – we don’t [yet] know what that was.’

Taylor added that Ekins-Coward had been fully trained in lab safety protocols, and had been working in the lab for six months carrying out the same procedure. Health and safety officers at the university are now carrying out a full investigation to establish exactly what happened in this case. ‘We intend to engage national safety experts in the post-incident follow up,’ said Taylor, adding that the HNEI has initiated a comprehensive safety review of all their laboratory operations in response to the accident.

The building was initially closed off following the incident, but has now reopened after engineers confirmed it was structurally sound. The Honolulu fire department has estimated the damage to the lab itself to be at least $1 million (£705,000), as the explosion destroyed equipment and broke through walls.