The main building of the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru

Pallava Bagla

One dead, three severely injured after explosion at Indian shock wave lab

NEW DELHI—The explosion of a gas cylinder left one researcher dead and three others seriously injured yesterday in a shock wave lab at one of India’s premier research facilities. It’s unclear what caused the blast, which took place at 2:20 p.m. local time at the Laboratory for Hypersonic and Shock Wave Research of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru.

The explosion shook the entire neighborhood, according to scientists from the nearby National Institute of Advanced Studies. Manoj Kumar, 32, an employee of a startup named Super-Wave Technology, died on the spot, IISc says. The three wounded were employees of the company as well. The startup was launched in 2016 by two faculty members of IISc’s aerospace department.

IISc’s shock wave lab opened half a century ago; it was upgraded in 2011 with funding from BrahMos Aerospace, a joint Indo-Russian venture that makes a supersonic cruise missile called BrahMos. Researchers at the lab have developed several potential applications for shock waves, including the delivery of drugs and vaccines, artificial insemination of livestock, oil extraction, and even the production of fruit juice. The facility now houses four sophisticated shock wave tubes that can use liquid hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and helium to generate shock waves.

“There was no fire, it was an explosion of a gas cylinder,” IISc Director Anurag Kumar, an electrical engineer, tells Science. Kumar declined to speculate on the cause of the accident and confirmed IISs is cooperating with a police investigation, while the institute’s safety office is conducting its own audit. Students and researchers at IISc do not go through a mandatory safety training, Kumar says: “It is left to individual professors to instruct the staff on safety as they are the most knowledgeable about the equipment they handle.”

IISC, which employs about 450 scientists on a sprawling campus, has “a very good safety record,” says biochemist and former IISc Diretor Padmanabhan Balaram, who says this is likely the first death because of a research-related accident in the institute’s 110-year history. Balaram worries the accident could put a dampener on shock wave research, a promising field in which IISc has invested “handsomely,” he says.

Kumar says there will be suitable compensation for the injured and the family of the deceased scientist.

*Update, 7 December, 7 p.m.:  According to The NEWSMinute, an online portal, Indian police on 7 December "booked" IISc professors G. Jagadeesh and KPJ Reddy for allegedly "causing death by negligence" and "causing grievous hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others." Jagadeesh and Reddy manage Super-Wave Technology Private Limited, the company that employed Kumar and his three injured colleagues.

*Correction, 7 December, 7 p.m.: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that BrahMos is the world's only supersonic cruise missile.