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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

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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July 18, 2007

Over There, Behind That Stack of Whatchamacallits

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Posted by Derek

Laboratories are not immune to a problem that affects many a kitchen. Surveying the counters and the cabinets, ones eye falls on a space-filling gizmo that hasn't been used in months, and the thought comes up before it can be repressed: "I wish I hadn't bought that thing".

As scientists, we don't have late-night infomercials to blame: the fault is not in our cable packages, but in ourselves. A likely way for white elephant equipment to get in the door is by the efforts of someone who used it somewhere else and just loved it. They agitate for it, they get the authorization to buy it, they order it. . .and, likely as not, only they ever use the thing. No one else likes/feels the need/can be bothered to learn how to use it. The advocate eventually moves on, but their hardware, perforce, stays behind.

These things migrate to unused fume hoods, should any exist, or to bench areas so inconveniently located that no one ever occupies them. This natually helps to ensure that no one uses the apparatus again, since it's now so far off the jungle paths. Should anyone try, they often find that vital pieces and accessories have been shed along the way, along with chunks of the documentation.

Biology labs are particularly laden with these things, in my experience. In chemistry, the combichem craze of the 1990s left a lot of stuff washed up on the beach, as did the proliferation of (semi)automated reaction stations and multiple-simultaneous-reaction gizmos. But none of these items are useless - it's just that some of them aren't quite useful enough for the space they take. By the time some of them get thrown out, you can tell how old they are just by the color of their plastic housings and the fonts used for their brand names.

Comments (27) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. kmd on July 18, 2007 7:28 PM writes...

We have 3-foot-by-2-foot-by-6-inch lamp-in-a-box for the purpose of comparing overlain NMR spectra. And it's complete with fake wood paneling to boot...

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2. Tim on July 19, 2007 12:01 AM writes...

Any advice to give to scrappy startups looking to acquire some of this old equipment on the cheap?

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3. BK on July 19, 2007 12:20 AM writes...

I wish I worked in your lab. Our (biochem) lab is lean and mean, verging on the spartan. *sigh*

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4. Jose on July 19, 2007 1:29 AM writes...

Irori, Argonaut, Genevac, and SpeediVac, wherefore art thou???

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5. milkshake on July 19, 2007 1:55 AM writes...

I have been unimpressed by Speedvac but my colleague in the lab recently bought it - for concentrating prep-HPLC purified fractions in test tubes in order to reduce their acetonitrile content before lyophilization.

The worst piece of combichem machinery in my opinion were the Advanced Chemtech solid phase automated synthesizers.

Part of the problem is that company management likes to "solve" problems by throwing lots of money on it but only once. It is much easier to convince management to spend 120k on a fully-automated teflon block synthesizer with a pippetting and weighing station (that needs lots of tender loving care and expensive proprietary supplies) instead of hiring one more person to do the actual work. Then you get the piece gathering dust becoause it broke down and nobody really needs it that urgently - and would not invest few days of his time to get it up and running.

Also, many times these all-encopassing machines can save time for a large task but if you have something small it can be a lot less hassle to do it manualy, without a help of the machinery.

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6. A-non-y-mous on July 19, 2007 5:21 AM writes...

Not every piece of equipment is suited for every project

Some things I love, but others hate:

Radial Chromatography (aka Chromatatron) - it really was indispensible for my graduate work (bile pigments), and works 10x better and quicker than a column. The downside, though, is you're limited to ~1g maximum, so it's best for final products, not intermediates.

Argonaut Quest 210 - I would love to have one of these even now. Really sped up my post-doc work. I was able to make 10 compounds in the same time I could make 1. The downside: consumables are expensive and probably out of production by now, and you have to be able tinker with it when a problem comes up (some people should not be allowed to hold a tool). But once you learn how to use it, it's one of those WOW! moments.

Why do some things have a bad reputation? A combination of: fear of new things, too lazy to learn new techniques (but, you may not have the time in pharma), not able to look down the road and forsee when something might become useful. It really is amazing how closed-minded chemists can be!

Derek, how about spinning band column distillation? I had to fix and set up an old one in grad school, and it was a pain to use, but I never would have been able to get the separation I needed without it.

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7. milo on July 19, 2007 5:54 AM writes...

I love the chromatatron, a truly useful piece of equipment. I knew a guy who would make his own chiral stationary phases for doing natural product isolations.... very impressive indeed.

One thing scientists, like everyone else, are susceptible to is marketing. When I was a postdoc, there was great buzz in the lab because we were getting a robot to prep our 96 well plates for our fluorescence assays. The salesman demoed one for us and convinced us that it was trivial to use and would save us oodles of time. It turns out that we only ran, at most, 2-3 plates per day and a good grad student to prep them much faster than the silly robot.

Last I heard... the robot is sitting on the bench, covered in dust. The PC that controls it was long since tossed out.

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8. NJBiologist on July 19, 2007 7:03 AM writes...

Tim: You could try looking at the web sites for companies called in to clear out the detritus of site closures (Advanced Asset Services and DoveBid Industrial Auctions are the biggest).

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9. LuckyChucky on July 19, 2007 8:06 AM writes...

Then of course, there is the infamous DieterDryer. This invaluable instrument was conveyed to me most ceremoniously by one of the very sage, very senior research scientists at the company I worked. I still recall the day quite well, walking down the hallway when the wizened Dr.whispered almost conspiratorally from his lab doorway, and then waved me into his lab after having caught my attention. As he led me to the bench containing the DieterDryer, he put his arm around my shoulder as he extolled the merits of this precision drying device. I felt as though a right of passage was at hand. I proudly exited the lab, DieterDryer firmly in my grip, excited about the many applications of this new, old instrument. My chance to use the DieterDryer came quickly. We had scaled up a key indole intermediate in my lab and needed to dry the precious material on large scale. I confidently placed the precious indole into the machines loading tray and called my two trusty assistants over to witness the marvel of this technology at work. After we loaded our 30 or 40 grams of the indole, we plug the DieterDryer in, comforted by the sound of its whirling turbine, sanguine in the devices simplicity. No fancy thermostats, no adjustments, just plug it in and let it do its work. Basically it was a coffepot with a heating element, tray and blower.

After about 5 minutes, we began to notice a faint odor which quickly grew stronger. My confidence turning to fear, I quickly pulled the tray to look at the smoking remains of our precious indole, charred beyond recognition. To this day, the infamous DieterDryer waits on the shelf, waiting for the rite of passage when it will get passed along once more.

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10. Mark M on July 19, 2007 10:47 AM writes...

Ahh.... the lovely Kugelrohr distillation apparatus.

Great for graduate school--not used so much in industry. And with a $5k price tag, you start looking for things to distill to justify its use and why you pushed so hard to get one.

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11. roadnottaken on July 19, 2007 11:10 AM writes...

"When you're holding a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail." --unknown

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12. DrSnowboard on July 19, 2007 11:19 AM writes...

Counts as off-topic as we never actually bought one but anyone still use a Buchi Syncore? Beautifully overengineered parallel reaction station that almost walked itself off the bench when we demo'd it ( ie through vibration). Still, the demo period did get us through the couple of weeks our other pump was down. We never used it in anger though....just swopped the pump on the genevac..aah, the joyful bandit days of biotech department startup.

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13. JC on July 19, 2007 1:21 PM writes...

A Bohdan weigh station is really no help at all when it comes to weighing material out.

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14. molecularArchitect on July 19, 2007 1:38 PM writes...

I'll second A-non-y-mous regarding the Chromatotron. It's still one of my favorite lab tools. Separations equal to flash but more convenient. Much more convenient and faster than prep HPLC. We also had a Buchi Syncore. It had it's uses but, in general, my group preferred to use standard vials on a stir plate for parallel reactions. The Syncore was great for parallel hydrogenations at atmospheric pressure.

One of my favorite toys is the ALLEXis. It's a programmable robot for doing liquid-liquid extractions. Much slower than a human chemist but, if you have 2 dozen reactions to work up, it chugs along all night. Come back in the morning and all your samples are ready to be evaporated. It's one of the few gadgets for combi-/parallel chemistry that I would recommend.

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15. Chrispy on July 19, 2007 2:34 PM writes...

A kugelrohr is really $5k?

We must have had an off-brand one. It used a truck windshield wiper motor and what looked to be a coffee pot heating element. It worked, though, for those times when you wanted to distill something you could barely get to fly.

The same lab had a chromatotron which we never used. I might have tried it if the name didn't sound like an Atari-era videogame...

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16. Jose on July 19, 2007 3:20 PM writes...

Chrispy- The kugelrohr you refer to was in fact, the standard for years, straight from Aldrich for $3k or so. I laughed the first time I saw one assumed as you did, that it was a ghetto home-mod or knockoff. After all, *somebody* had to pay for A Bader's art collection.....

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17. ITC on July 19, 2007 9:45 PM writes...

Chromatotron - I've never used one, but I have a great deal of affection for these things. They remind me of the spin-splatter paint things in the 80s-early 90s. If prep TLC or flash can't crack something I'm borrowing one of these and playing with it until it works.

Speedvac - Honestly I think they're indispensable if you're doing prep HPLC on something that doesnt take well to concentration, for the pre-lyophilizer treatment (aldehydes, anyone? HOAc comes off faster than TEA or NH3 and I've seen aldols go in concentrated hplc fractions). I've been in numerous labs that have both rotavap and speedvac and I always go with speedvac. Careful drying all the way down, and they get warm, even when the heater isn't on...

Just-a-few-uLs UV-VIS - I haven't had any luck here. Wish I did, I love the idea. I've always gotten so-so spectra. Same for the tiny "field" UV-vis that takes the normal 10mm cells - they line up the tiny window cells even less consistently than our my-annual-salary uv-vis.

Inline uv-vis on a fraction collector - crapshoot. I've seen ones suitable for quantitation and ones where you can't even be sure if your stuff has come off yet.

Anything but C18 and common IE HPLC columns - I've had OK luck with these, but often, even the common weird stuff like phenyl columns just goes unused because nobody wants to bother developing a new method. If it's an organic, a lot of the time, 65/35 mecn/h2o isocratic works fine on c18, and if it's a biomolecule, you're going with the literature or developing your method on your favorite column.

I admit to having my own favorite proprietary stationary hplc phases, though.

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18. milikshake on July 19, 2007 11:02 PM writes...

Never was much fun of Kugelrohr distillation - until I eneded up on a kinase prodject where 90% of my time was spent on synthesizing various elaborate chiral solubilizing diamines that would increase the solubility (and activity) of our compounds above the brick dust. Now, with these pieces the aquoeus workup was out of question and the chromatographic purification was not much joy either. I learned to love the old Coffee Can.

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19. molecularArchitect on July 19, 2007 11:16 PM writes...

The Aldrich Kugelrohr is a piece of crap, especially the funky truck wiper motor. The authentic Brinkman Kugelrohr, with the glass oven, is a joy to use. Far better recovery than with a short path still and a similar number of theoretical plates. Given how often a med chemist needs to distill an intermediate though, it's tough to justify the cost. Somewhere in the range of $5-7K. And that fancy glass oven is fragile.

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20. Loon E Toon on July 20, 2007 7:14 AM writes...

My boss once had a big plan requiring lots of peptides, so we bought an advanced chemtech peptide synthesizer. Only one person was taught how to use it, as it wasnt' deemed 'postdoc proof.' I spent many days of dissolving protected amino acids to pour into the thing.

Then the boss learned the joys of contract synthesis, and decided that paying someone with a PhD to mix up solvents was not the best use of their time. The synthesizer is stashed in a room that 'someday' will become office space.

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21. Anonymous BMS Researcher on July 21, 2007 8:41 AM writes...

At BMS in 2007 the hallways have many many items of old equipment with various colors of Y2K-compliance status stickers on them (all of which say "do not remove before June 2000) -- in the late 1990s basically anything with an LED had to be assessed and get such a sticker.

Back in grad school days, I recall the uppermost shelves in our teaching labs had some really old stuff; for instance the Physiology labs had some kymographs, clockwork gizmos that were long ago replaced by strip chart recorders. Towards the end of my time as a grad student we began replacing the strip chart recorders with computerized data acquisition. It's been well over a decade since I set foot in the Duke Bioscience building; I wonder if those kymographs are STILL sitting there on the upper shelves!?

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22. Derek Lowe on July 21, 2007 11:24 AM writes...

Anon-BMS, when I was in elementary school I acquired old science equipment catalog which was being thrown out - I think it was a 1968 Ward Supply. I looked through it avidly, and I remember a big section of kymographs. What threw me was the additional supplies section, where you ordered rolls of smoked paper.

I couldn't believe for a while that this thing actually recorded by scratching a metal pen across a sheet of dirty paper. It sounded antiquated to me, as an eight-year-old in 1970.

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23. Anonymous BMS Researcher on July 21, 2007 12:04 PM writes...

Hi Derek:

You mean the chemistry labs at Duke (where both of us got our doctorates) didn't have a few alembics or whatever sitting on the upper shelves? Did you chemists throw stuff out faster than we biologists did?

In my high-school science labs circa 1974 we used strip-chart recorders, so by the time I got to Duke those kymographs had VERY thick layers of dust on them!

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24. Anonymous on July 21, 2007 12:12 PM writes...

Another technological event marker in my time at Duke was a memo I recall going around circa 1987: In X months the very last punch card reader on campus will be scrapped, so if you still have any data needing conversion to newer media, now is the time. By that time I had long since tossed my punch cards, but a few years later I did have to copy the contents from numerous 5.25-inch floppies to 3.5-inch floppies. The laptop on which I'm typing this does not even have a floppy drive.

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25. kiwi on July 22, 2007 5:22 AM writes...

All the kugelrohr's I've seen look like this:

Made by Buchi from memory, they work like a charm. No better way to distill small amounts of liquids (or even some organic solids), and a handy way to dry inorganic salts.

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26. JW18 on July 22, 2007 2:28 PM writes...

I recall a lead-protected radioactive chamber distributed to public schools probably in the ~1960s to study the effects of radioation on say plant seeds, etc. I believe post 9-11, the government has tried to account for these.

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27. Philip on July 22, 2007 3:55 PM writes...

The best way to do that Kugelrohr thing was to buy the little turning motor gizmo from Buchi, buy the coffee pot thing from Aldrich and get the needed glassware from Ace or ChemGlass or whoever. That way you got a nice motor and vacuum connection and you could Kugelrohr (it became a verb) large or small amounts. I've Kugelrohred over 100 g. It was always a pain in the butt to get Buchi to sell you the correct plug on the Buchi vacuum adaptor motor device, though.

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