Chemistry Experiment Gone Wrong


Tucker Hill, Staff Writer

On Monday, September 15, a chemistry experiment being taught by a new teacher at Denver’s SMART Academy had went terribly wrong. Four students were burned, but one took serious injury. A fire erupted as the teacher was doing a demonstration with methanol. Three of the four students were treated and released from the hospital, but the fourth suffered severe enough burns to have to be transferred to another hospital. The teacher, Daniel Powell, suffered minor injuries to his hands. He was put on paid administrative leave. After this incident, the school has suspended any experiments that have to do with chemicals and flammable materials.

Ironically, the accident happened on the same day that a federal agency recommended schools change the way they perform dangerous experiments. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board says that too much methanol was used. Powell used a four-liter jug during this experiment. It was also the second time this month that fires linked to methanol in science demonstrations. The first was a flash fire in a museum in Reno, Nevada on September 3. Thirteen people were injured during this demonstration, many of them being children. The person in charge of the demonstration had applied the chemicals in the wrong order.

Because this incident wasn’t too far away from us, we talked to one of the chemistry teachers here on her opinion about it and what safety precautions that she takes here when doing experiments with these types of materials. Ms. Shroer commented, “I think that it was very poor planning on behalf of the people who were in charge of the demonstration. We do experiments with methanol here. We use very small quantities of it though. Most of the activities we do here are considered micro scale, and we store our methanol in a special cabinet for flammable substances. When we do experiments like this, we keep alcohol away from open flames, and as I said before, we use small quantities.”

Using methanol and alcohol based substances is a big part of Chemistry class, but it needs to be used carefully. Schools in Colorado are having laws changed to lower the use of dangerous chemicals such as methanol. Hopefully this will be the last incident with methanol fires.