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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« Elsewhere | Main | Vial Thirty-Three: Warp Drive »

November 14, 2006

Where Do All The Chemicals Go?

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Posted by Derek

When a bunch of chemistry projects suddenly stop in their tracks, you're faced with a real waste disposal problem. What do you do with all the blasted chemicals? First off, there are reactions going in people's fume hoods, some of which probably aren't going to be worked up. Into the red waste can they go. Then there are all the opened bottles of solvent, which aren't going to be shipped off anywhere like that. Unless there's a local university that's not very picky, those are going to end up hauled off for waste, too. (I wouldn't trust a solvent bottle that someone unknown to me has opened and left around, personally, especially if I have no way of tracking down its previous owner).

Solid commercial reagents are a bit different, since they're generally more stable and less likely to be contaminated (and often easier to spot if they've gone bad). Everything unopened - and every lab has plenty of unopened stuff in it, for one reason or another - will either be moved to the sites that are still running, or have several chances at donation or sale before being treated as waste. Opened commercial reagents will be subject to the same calculations, but on a steeper curve. Is the stuff still commercially available? Do the folks on the other end have enough of it already? If no, is anyone likely to want it? Is it worth shipping a long distance? Any "no" answers send the bottle to the "donate" pile, and that much closer to a waste pickup.

My guess is that very few of the commercial reagents will stay within the company. Compounds and intermediates that were made in-house, though, will get much more deferential treatment. These are almost certainly not commercially available, and have (be definition) been used to make something that was thought to have some value and to have some chance of being proprietary. Everything in this category will probably make the cut for being shipped, unless it's obviously turned to black tar on storage.

The mother lode of these compounds is, of course, the repository. Every drug company has one, full of racks and rows of vials and small bottles, every one of them containing something that someone thought was worth making and worth testing. Some of these have been dissolved in small quantities of DMSO, for liquid handling machines to dispense them, and these may or may not be worthwhile. But all the stock solids will be carefully packed and shipped off, no questions asked. They represent a huge investment in man-hours and money. Tossing them would be like a coal company setting its mines on fire.

Comments (12) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Closing Time


1. Imide Closing on November 14, 2006 11:40 PM writes...

My lab (new prof in charge) has been the beneficiary of several Bay Area med chem lab closings. We even have codes on our inventory for the different labs where the chemicals were obtained from. Good to know some day I'll be on the other end of this...

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2. Petros on November 15, 2006 5:03 AM writes...


Yep its a big issue disposing of the chemicals. I and a colleague who had also retained employment beyond the closure of the chemistry group we were in spent a week geting rid of teh stuff.

The better stuff went to an academic group but the worst, and something that you haven't emntioned, was disposing of all the bottles of solutions of reactive reagents, t-butyllithium being one of the nicest to handle

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3. Wavefunction on November 15, 2006 9:05 AM writes...

A place where I used to work occasionally used to dump its old/used stuff under a tree, for a truck to pick up. Once, they dumped a few kilos of NaH, and then it started to rain furiously...4th of July anyone?! It was so much fun...

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4. Jim on November 15, 2006 10:57 AM writes...

Been there- on the biology side, though. Just substitute colonies of transgenic mice for racks of solvents.....pretty grim.

As sad as it is being the side of "I have to get rid of all of my stuff", nothing is more awkward than being the person from the site that didn't get shut down who has to show up to pick and choose equipment to be sent back to those labs that are still open. If looks could kill.

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5. MTK on November 15, 2006 12:31 PM writes...

BTW, the best way I've found to dispose of lithiates and Grignards is to pour them (or cannulate, in the case of tBuLi) onto dry ice. No worries about solvent catching fire, everything stays nice and cold, and the process is fast. Just make sure to break up the carboxylic acid crust that forms every now and then.

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6. een of andere vent on November 15, 2006 3:29 PM writes...

A lot of labs have a box with flasks and bottles of some guy who left the lab 5 years ago. Everybody says that those nice compounds must reach the compound collection, but nobody wants to put them in the right tubes and have them shipped. After another two years the box still ends in the waste.

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7. anon on November 15, 2006 6:51 PM writes...


Even though that is a standard quench in grad school, it is not acceptable in industry. They want you to just throw a waste disposal label on the stuff rather than dealing with liability issues. These are the same people that wouldn't let us have extension cords or electric coffeemakers in our cubicles because they apparently didn't trust us around electricity. Last week they changed the locks on the solvent rooms, thinking that someone would go postal after the layoff annoucement.

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8. milkshake on November 15, 2006 7:15 PM writes...

Our Church of Chemical Diversity knows definitive answers to these pressing questions:

The collected compounds are counted, weighed and divided. Some are found wanting:

The good compounds join the other good compounds in the Collection.
The bad compounds are poured into a waste drum and lost forever.
The impure compounds are purged of their impurities in Combiflash; only then they are allowed to the Collection.


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9. Greg Hlatky on November 15, 2006 9:08 PM writes...

"But all the stock solids will be carefully packed and shipped off, no questions asked. They represent a huge investment in man-hours and money. Tossing them would be like a coal company setting its mines on fire."

Dear God, we keep the chemicals and throw the chemists away!

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10. eugene on November 18, 2006 8:37 PM writes...

Sorry to hear about the job situation...

However, what happens to the NMR machine? You probably have to quench the sucker and then you're not sure if it'll work again. If no one in management objects, I'll be happy to take the thing off your hands and I'll pay for the shipping.

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11. Carlo Ang on November 29, 2006 11:43 AM writes...

i guess disposing of the waste is a real problem because, in the first place, it's usually cheaper to MAKE the waste than to DISPOSE of the waste. unlike a preschooler's perspective of a piece of paper thrown into a garbage can, the waste doesn't really "disappear" and it has to end up somewhere eventually...

but in any case, i'm a bit happy to hear that dangerous wastes are hard to dispose of... it simply means that environment laws actually do work in preventing people from just burying the waste in some random forest or in the Arizona desert... if the waste was easy to dispose of, then i'd get so paranoid i might stop drinking water...

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12. lizzy on March 16, 2008 12:55 PM writes...

none of your comments tell how to accually get rid of chemical wastes!!! thanx alot!!!

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