Observations about the universe, life, Lausanne and me

Thursday, March 22, 2007


I recently was overcome with a sudden premonition that the security of the EPFL will cost me quite a bit of patience over the next few years. I have written before of the safety system for toxic gases. What I did not know at that point is that this system also monitors the ventilation of the labs. No ventilation, no toxic gases. I don't see the point in this - if there is no toxic spill, than a lack of ventilation will at most cause the air to go a bit stale, and if there is a toxic spill, than the a couple of dozen automatic valves close anyway.

And what, the reader might ask, hideously toxic gases are you crazy people using anyway? The list, I have to confess, is quite boring, only slightly toxic but a very real fire hazard:

Silane SiH4: mildly toxic, but quite pyrophoric
Oxygen O2: not toxic at normal pressures *grin*, but a good oxidizer
Hydrogen H2: When mixed with air (starting at 4% H2) or Oxygen: "Kaboom"

So no nerve agents, but if there is a Hydrogen leak, and then a Silane leak...

What the safety system unfortunately does allow is clueless security people to fool around. For example, testing fire alarms, blissfully unaware that in the event of a fire the ventilation is naturally shut down. No more toxic gases for this experiment! Now, due to a picket-fence war about the advisability of storing bicycles beneath staircases (Scientists: Nobody will steal them, plus they are out of the way! Security: They pose a fire hazard!) there is a certain animosity in the air anyway - and the shut-down alluded to above did not do much to clear the air (hah!), especially since the rather confused security took about an hour to restart the ventilation...

I can see that it is only a matter of time until we have to build a plasma gun and go to war with security. Regrettable, but necessary. At least then security will have a raison d'être.

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