Combustion Whoosh Bottle Experiment Done Right

Last week, a Minnesota science class got more than they bargained for when a combustible demonstration being done by the physical sciences teacher caught chemicals on a lab table on fire and burned several students, including 15-year-old Dane Neuberger.

The burned student says, “I started screaming and he was on me fast to put the fire out and my shirt and face were on fire.” The 9th Grade teacher, Matt Achor wrapped Neuberger in a fire blanket, smothering the flames as soon as they erupted.

The student was sitting in the front row of his science class with three others when a methanol experiment went terribly awry, putting him in the hospital with second-degree burns covering his hands, face and neck. Luckily the resilient teen is stable and could be released by mid December and doctors say he may not require skin grafts and could have no permanent scarring.

But the Maple Grove Junior High School teacher who conducted the experiment is on paid administrative leave until the school can conduct a full investigation of the accident.

Neuberger’s father wants the school to implement stricter safety policies governing science labs.

A week after Thanksgiving students gathered in Mr. Achor’s class for a final at the end of the term. After the test was over the teacher rewarded the students with a dangerous display, demonstrating how methanol vaporizes into the air and becomes combustible. This demonstration is dangerous and should only be conducted under the proper circumstances. And even then, something can go wrong.

In this case, left over chemicals from another experiment dotted the lab table where the combustion experiment was being done. The flash of methanol flame didn’t stay in the five gallon water jug as planned. It escaped and mixed with the chemical residue on the lab table, burning the students closest to the flash fire.

Neuberger says it caught his shirt and some papers on fire. A fire extinguisher in the room was used to stop the burning papers.

The school district says the school is no longer conducting the lab experiment that led to the students getting burned.

The Internet has about 300 videos of this experiment being done, including one by science educator Steve Spangler. He suggests the demonstration makes a great classroom experiment because it allows a teacher to show students how combustion works. They get to see a flash of fire and an impressive spectacle. But they also learn that the fire which heats the vaporized methanol releases carbon dioxide and leaves water as a byproduct.

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1 Comment

  1. Typical over-reaction, literally and figuratively. The demonstration shouldn’t be done with methanol. Isopropanol would be a better choice for slower combustion. The demo should be behind a safety shield. Other flammable materials shouldn’t be nearby. Students should be a safe distance away, and they should be wearing safety goggles. My sympathies to all concerned. Could have been much worse.

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