Critical materials in UAH and other laboratories protected by backup power when tornadoes struck

News Outlet:

The Huntsville Times

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – Much of the research, experiments and vital treatment materials in Huntsville laboratories are protected by backup power sources and safe in the aftermath of Wednesday’s tornadoes and storms.

"We have biological specimens that represent not only high-dollar value but time value," said Dr. Joseph Ng, who teaches biology at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

There are genes, micro-organisms and more that have been collected from the far corners of the Earth and represent five, 10, even more than 20 years of work, he said. Many are stored in special freezers at minus 80 degrees Centigrade.

Some of those freezers are connected to backup power, but there was more demand than supply after the storms, particularly when it became clear the campus would be without power for days.

So Ng joined others at UAH and in Huntsville in the scramble to find more generators to keep more freezers going. Then they also had to learn how to hook them up to special equipment, wiring, pumps and more.

"Biologists like me had to learn about electricity on the fly," Ng said Sunday afternoon.

The UAH Biomolecular Nuclear Magnetic Resonance facility also has equipment with an electromagnet that must be kept super-cold or it will compromise its usefulness, he said. At the Shelby Center for Science and Technology there is a major greenhouse for genetically modified plants that must be kept at higher temperatures and specific humidity levels. Both required a lot of babysitting in the aftermath of the storms.

Ng has high praise not only for his departmental colleagues and students at UAH, but also for the physical plant staff who worked long hours over the weekend when they, too, had families recovering from the storms.

"In a crisis like this, we had a lot of people pulling together," he said.
Ng also has a company named iExpressGenes at HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology. He said the genes made there were also at risk, but backup power and teamwork protected the materials.

It was some help that the storm warnings came well in advance last week, allowing scientists at HudsonAlpha to make some timing decisions about research projects that helped minimize losses, said Holly Ralston, director of communications.

"Continuous power is very important to what we do here at the institute," she said. "For backup to our critical areas we have very large Cummings diesel generators with a fuel capacity of roughly 15,000 gallons. We’re keeping those tanks topped off."

While the generators serve critical areas, offices and food-service areas experienced the same outages as everywhere else in the area, Ralston said.

At Clearview Cancer Institute, the most critical materials are probably the bone marrow and blood stem cells harvested from some patients to be used in their own treatments for multiple myeloma and other cancers, said Dr. Marshall Schreeder.

"We have a liquid nitrogen backup on that," said Schreeder, a founder of CCI. That system can keep the stem cells – and he emphasized that these are not embryonic stem cells – viable for years.

Vital medical and treatment records are backed up electronically off-site as well as on, so those are also protected, he said.

CCI initially secured generator power for day-to-day operations. As of today, it is resuming normal operations and has been trying to contact patients to let them know.

"The treatments can slip a day or two, but you don’t want them missing a week or two," he said.