For the last year, Cameron Parrish has kept a blue Post-it note hanging in the lab where he works at Chemours, a chemical company.
The note contains a handwritten quote from scientist Theodore Gray.
“One should not fear the substance, only the ignorance that leads to its mishandling.”
The quote is personal to Parrish, who graduated with his doctoral degree in fluoropolymer synthesis from Clemson University in 2017.
The lab where Parrish worked and learned will be shut down by April 1, ending more than 35 years of research in fluorine chemistry at Clemson.
The university, which has put an increased emphasis on research safety in the last six years, says that the lab spaces at Clemson used for fluorine chemistry were not up to necessary standards. The cost of renovating the labs, partly to meet the fire code for hazardous materials, was not feasible, according to the university.
But, Parrish and Joseph Thrasher, his research mentor and the professor whose labs are impacted, see the decision as an overreaction by the university to fears of liability.
“I firmly believe that fluorine chemistry, in the way that I was taught, can easily be carried out safely just like working with any other chemicals out there,” Parrish said.
Putting a microscope on research safety
Fluorine chemistry involves the element fluorine, which can be used in everything from drugs to fuel cells to Teflon, a non-stick material in cooking pans.
It was during a review of all the labs at the Advanced Materials Research Lab in Anderson during the summer of 2017 that Thrasher’s lab “stood out,” Mark Land, Clemson’s vice president of university relations, said.
The labs caught the university’s attention because of the volume of hazardous materials and the labeling practices for materials, Land said. Not all of the canisters were stored in toxic gas cabinets and the university wanted to see more detection equipment for the gas, which is odorless.
Clemson is not the first place to be concerned about fluorine chemistry safety. A 2016 article from the American Council on Science and Health, a notably pro-industry group, went as far as calling fluorine “the element from hell” because of its reactivity.
The 2017 review at Clemson was not the first time the university took a closer look at fluorine chemistry either. Thrasher said the university had put a microscope on his lab as far back as 2014.
That year, there were two minor accidents in the lab, one involving a flask that burst and the other involving a shattered hood sash, a protective glass case behind which reactions can be conducted.
One of the incidents involved Parrish, who accidentally allowed a trap to become over-pressured. He was taken to a burn center as a precaution but had no injuries or lasting impacts.
Thrasher and Parrish said the fluorine chemistry labs received extra — and what they considered unnecessary — scrutiny after that point.
“They started nitpicking things in our lab that had nothing to do with the accident,” Parrish said.
After the university’s research safety office noted concerns with Thrasher’s labs, he was locked out of the lab in June 2017 and then allowed to go back to inventory chemicals and close out experiments.
The university hired outside consultants to look at what it would take to bring the labs up to current fire codes. Land said the university spent $83,000 to determine how to make the labs safer.
Thrasher agrees that there was room for improvement in the labs, including more toxic gas cabinets, but he called the university’s approach to updating the spaces “draconian.” Instead of working with him to find solutions, he felt the process has been adversarial.
Thrasher said he felt left out of the conversations about his labs and the discussions about what it would take to bring it up to the university’s standards. Without taking into account the needs of the user, he said, you cannot create an effective lab.
“Even if you come up with this huge budget, and you decided to pull the purse strings and do it, you’re going to have a failed facility,” Thrasher said.
The upgrades suggested for the lab would have cost upwards of $1 million, according to Land. Thrasher said the suggestions were over the top.
Considering the price tag to update the labs according to the outside consultants’ proposal, the dean of the College of Science told Thrasher on Nov. 9, 2018, that the university had made the “business decision” to no longer invest in fluorine chemistry.
“We didn’t go in presuming the answer, we wanted to see what the answer was,” Land said of the university’s research about upgrades. “A million plus dollars spent on this lab is a million plus dollars you can’t have spent elsewhere. The determination was just made given the amount of research dollars this brings in, this is very much a niche program and the equation just didn’t work out in the university’s estimation.”
Bruno Ameduri leads the fluorine chemistry research at L’Institut Charles Gerhardt Montpellier in France. He visited the fluorine chemistry labs at Clemson in 2004, 2008 and 2014 and said he believes the end of fluorine chemistry research at Clemson is a loss for the field.
The history of fluorine chemistry and Clemson
Clemson started doing work in fluorine chemistry when professor Darryl DesMarteau came to the university in 1982. In 1986, a committee for the governor on science and economic development in South Carolina highlighted the program as a strength for the university.
“This promising area is well developed in only a few universities across the country and since Clemson already has recognition and strength in fluorine chemistry, it provides an excellent focus for emphasis,” the committee stated in a report to the governor.
When DesMarteau retired, Thrasher, who had been a visiting professor at Clemson in the 1980s, was hired away from the University of Alabama to continue fluorine chemistry research at Clemson.
In 2016, Thrasher was named a fellow of the American Chemical Society. In a university press release announcing the honor, the interim dean of the College of Science, called Thrasher, “a leader in his field.”
Thrasher has focused part of his research on the compound tetrafluoroethylene, or TFE, and worked on batteries and fuel cell technology at the labs in Hunter Hall, the Clemson Environmental Technology Laboratory and the Advanced Materials Research Lab in Anderson.
Thrasher said TFE itself is benign, but the monomer or molecules used to form the polymer can be hazardous.
Thrasher said Clemson was also unique in exposing students to TFE, which made them better prepared for jobs at places like Chemours, where Parrish landed his position.
“Without having the Cornell or MIT type nameplate, our students are competitive against those kind of students because they don’t have to be taught this,” Thrasher said.
Before decommissioning his lab, Thrasher has to develop a new research program for himself. He intends to focus on halogen bonding, condensation polymerization and computational chemistry. The one current graduate student who was working on fluorine chemistry with him will also have to switch gears but plans to continue studying with Thrasher.
Thrasher said the university has offered him $100,000 in “restart money” in part so his graduate student can focus on research rather than teaching, and get up to speed in the new topic areas.
With the shift, Thrasher said it will be hard to start getting funding for his work.
“To get funding, you need to have a track record in the area and you need to have been publishing,” he said.
Land said the university remains committed to research. He said this was a unique situation and that no other labs or research areas have been similarly shut down.
“Clemson remains steadfastly committed to its large and growing research portfolio and works diligently to support the research needs of its faculty,” Land said. “In this isolated instance, however, the cost of renovating the lab space in question was simply viewed as prohibitive given the level of research being conducted.”
Thrasher remains convinced that the university is placing concerns over liability above professors’ academic freedom.
“If the internal combustion engine did not exist today and we tried to put it in place it would never happen because of the current safety precautions,” Thrasher said.