But what it don’t get, I can’t use

An incident last week reminded me just how mind-bogglingly expensive it is to do science. Our group’s purchasing cards stopped working for a few days (the exact reason, you’ll be surprised to learn, did not involve us overspending on death lasers or Mentos and Diet Coke, as much as I would have liked it to have). These are effectively credit cards tied to grant money that we use to buy all the fancy and not-so fancy lab supplies: test tubes, mysterious white powders, gloves, kegs and kegs of acetone. Not Bunsen burners, though, as lab-ish as those are. We have a special retro nostalgia account dedicated purely to Bunsen burners.

So it got me thinking in hypotheticals. What would happen if we had to pay for our scientific expenses out of pocket? For one, I wouldn’t be in the field for much longer, that’s for sure. I’m not even talking about the large expensive pieces of equipment. (We’ve got a big thermal evaporator glovebox – the specifics of which aren’t too important. It’s got a diffusion pump, you can think of it like a super strong super fancy vacuum, that’s about the size of a large boot and costs more than my car.) I’m just thinking about incidentals. Box of disposable gloves? $15. Drum of acetone? $100. Silicon wafers? Could be around $10 per wafer. It adds up fast.

I think that’s part of the reason you don’t see many independent Thomas Edison types anymore. I don’t have any stats on it, but I wouldn’t hesitate to say that there isn’t any research going on in this country that’s not paid for by some government or industrial grant. I’ll save my science funding rant for another day, but suffice it to say, science costs are prohibitively expensive to individuals and small private groups. The money has to come from somewhere if we want space boats and invisibility cloaks.

Lab Activity of the Day: Remaking a set of transistors that fried when I made them yesterday.


Let’s not die, shall we?

Frightening dilemma of the day: how to get lithium fluoride inside my glove box?

I spend a lot of time working in a glove box, where the idea is to keep oxygen and moisture out. You fill the box with your favorite inert gas (we’ve got nitrogen in the one I use), and that let’s you do all sorts of fun science that would normally get messed up by oxygen or water. As a benign example: magnesium oxidizes like crazy in air. Nothing dangerous, sort of like the equivalent of rust. So if you need non-rusty magnesium, get yourself a glove box (there are far easier and cheaper ways to make sure magnesium doesn’t oxidize, but it’s a good example). There are more dangerous situations where you want a glove box becasue, say, things explode in water, but you get the idea.

So. First rule of glove box: don’t put oxygen/water inside. Seems simple but is sometimes a bit less intuitive than not sticking your cup of coffee inside. Jars of chemicals can go in fairly frequently, for example. If you close a chemical jar outside the glove box, you’ve now got oxygen inside the jar. If you then put it in your box and open it, you’ve just broken glove box rule #1 (guilty!). So generally you open your jar, pull out the air with a vacuum pump, then put it in your box. Easy!

Well, today I got some lithium fluoride that needed to go in my glove box. It arrived with an enormous skull and cross-bones poison label on the UPS box. It’s nasty stuff (even by chemist standards), and you don’t want to breathe it. Really. Unless you like, and I quote, “immediate defecation, writhing, … liver edema and necrosis, respiratory and cardiac failure.” (To be fair, that’s just for “large doses”, whatever that means.) I was thrilled. The problem then became how best to open it up so I could vacuum out the oxygen (so I could put it in the glove box) without killing myself. Welcome to the exciting life of chemistry grad students.

Long story short, the stuff is in the box. I am not dead.