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American Chemical Society: I’m May Nyman here to answer your questions about the August 12 warehouse explosion in Tianjin, China, AMA!
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Hello, May Nyman here, professor of chemistry at Oregon State University. A warehouse exploded in Tianjin, China last week that did the damage of 20 tons of dynamite, felt like an earthquake, looked like a nuclear explosion from space, but we don’t know yet what caused it. Many different chemicals were stored in that warehouse, and scientists and other experts can only hypothesize what happened, and what will happen next. At Oregon State University, I run a research lab, training young scientists from all over the country and the world. We are inorganic synthetic chemists, and we make materials for energy and environmental applications. For example, we collaborate with other scientists in the Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry developing low energy methods to make the materials you find inside your smartphone and computer. We also work with scientists in the Energy Frontier Research Center, Materials Science of Actinides to discover new ways to make nuclear energy more efficient and safer. For the Department of Energy, we figure out ways to make new materials with new properties. I have not always been a professor; for only three years in fact. I started my career at Sandia National Labs, studying nuclear wastes, and inventing ways to remove the radioactive elements and store them safely. I also figured out ways to make the water that we drink cleaner. But what I love most of all about chemistry is the beautiful and perfectly functional things in nature that are completely composed of the elements of the periodic table; including rocks and minerals, butterfly wings, leaves, and DNA! August 12, 2015 was a sad day for chemists when such a tragic accident happened that gives chemistry a bad name, and results in people fearing chemicals. The officials do not yet know what exactly happened, what caused the explosion, how it could’ve been prevented, and which chemicals stored in the warehouse might have been the source of explosion. We also do not know why the fish are dying and why ‘soap suds’ are observed everywhere after it rained in Tianjin. We do not know what the short-term or long-term impact of this accident will be, or if the people living near the accident site or sites like it are in danger of future explosions. We know of about a half dozen chemicals that were stored there including calcium carbide; ammonium potassium and sodium nitrate; sodium cyanide; toluene diisocyanate; and compressed gases. As scientists, we can form hypotheses of what chemical reactions could have occurred in Tianjin at the scene of this most unfortunate event. Update: strangely enough there was a second warehouse explosion a few hundred miles away, 10 days later in Shandong; the chemical mentioned here is adiponitrile I’ll be back at 1:00pm ET to begin answering your questions. EDIT: 9:53 PT good day Reddit community, Thank you for all your questions. I am online now until 2:00 Eastern time. May Nyman EDIT: 11:10 PT. thank you for all the fantastic questions and comments, Reddit community. My official hour is up, and I need to take a break and work on my day job. I will come back at 3:00 PT to answer some more questions. May Nyman EDIT: 2:59 PT I am back to answer a few more of these many many questions. and I will be sure to address storage, as this question comes up in various forms. May Nyman EDIT: 3:49 PT. It has been fun talking with you, Reddit community. A good day to all. May Nyman