Tuesday, February 21, 2017

It is all about safety!

Dr. Abdelkrim Toumi has been reviewing our safety procedures in the lab as we work our planetary simulation chamber up for its first research use. This is something we take very seriously at PVL.

by: Dr. Abdelkrim Toumi

If you are working as a chemist, there are many potential dangers you can face. It is of your responsibility to be aware of the procedures that must be followed for working in safety. Different kinds of dangers exist in a laboratory such as chemical, physical, biological or radiological and each of them has its own safety procedures. During my research as a postdoctoral fellow here in the Planetary Volatiles Laboratory, we are working on a camera that would be able to detect water in some specific polar regions on the Moon. I have to deal with special environment, instruments and chemicals so I have to be very careful when I want to perform an experiment. Different safety procedures must be followed but it is not as easy as it sounds. In this post, you will find a non-exhaustive list of procedures that must be taken during my work.

A VUV (for Vacuum UltraViolet, i.e. with a wavelength <200 nm) lamp will be used to simulate the cosmic rays reaching the ices inside the so-called Permanently Shadowed Regions (or PSRs). To do so, we will operate with a Krypton lamp in which the noble gas is excited using a radio-frequency source. As a result, there will be the emission of 2 bands at 116.5 and 123.6 nm due to this excitation. Radiation at this wavelength is very dangerous to the eyes. Even the contact with skin must be limited because it can cause severe burns. To protect himself, one has to wear safety goggles and a laboratory coat. Fortunately, one good thing is most of the radiation that will go out from the chamber (due to multiple reflections within) will be absorbed by the atmospheric ozone present in the laboratory. But we can never be too careful! We also needed to install a light system outside the laboratory indicating (among other things) if the lamp is functioning or not. In this way, someone who enters will know that he must not look at the chamber directly and will need to immediately don safety goggles before entering.

As a chemical experimenter, I will be in contact with some hazardous compounds. A first step for the safety procedure is to read the safety data sheet for each compound I want to manipulate. Each compound has its proper data sheet where different information is indicated such as the hazards identification, how to store the compound properly, and first aid measures in case of contact. This safety data sheet must be read before purchasing the compound in order to be organized in terms of handling and storage. For my experiment, I have to deposit a special coating (to turn the VUV photons into visible ones to be analyzed by a camera) onto glass slides and I have to deal with alcohols and acids. These two classes of compounds have different safety procedures. To manipulate them, I need to wear safety goggles, a lab coat and special gloves. The preparation of the mixtures and the coating application will be performed within an extractor hood to avoid the propagation of vapors (that can be flammable for some liquids). In this laboratory, luckily, other safety materials will be present such as a fire extinguisher, a safety shower (or a special sink devoted to clear the eyes with water) in case of a contact with chemicals

This part of work (searching for every kind of safety procedures) can be time-consuming and also very stressful, mostly because any error cannot be made and the laboratory is shared with others. You have to feel very concerned about yourself but also about their health. However, it has been known for a long time that sometimes you have to deal with danger to make big and incredible discoveries, especially in chemistry, so it is worth it in the end!

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