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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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October 22, 2010

Keeping Track Of All Those Chemicals

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Posted by Derek

Here's something that you don't think about until you actually work in a department full of chemists: how do you keep track of who's got what, and where it is? Everyone has reagents on their bench, and hidden away under the fume hood, and they're ordering more (and using up the current bottles) all the time. And people are wandering from lab to lab, borrowing and pilfering, sometimes when the original owners are there, and sometimes not. So how do you know what you have?

I've seen a number of approaches to this chemical inventory problem. The essential thing is that every bottle of every reagent be trackable. That means some sort of bar-coding system, most likely. Those bar codes need to go on when the compounds come in the door, ideally, so there aren't a lot of invisible reagents floating around. I think the best way to do this is to have the shipping and receiving people involved - if you trust the chemists to bar-code things, many of them just won't quite get around to it.

The next big question is whether you're going to have a centralized chemical stockroom or not (I've worked under both systems). The stockroom probably makes it easier to keep track of things, in general, since otherwise the available reagents are distributed throughout the labs at all times (instead of the ten per cent or so that are actually in active use). And it helps to have some place to send all those bottles back to - when you clean up your bench, you know that there's one thing you can do immediately, which helps keep the chemicals homing back to the central location.

A stockroom, though, requires dedicated space and dedicated head count, and neither of those are always feasible. The spread-throughout-the-labs approach puts the work back on the chemists. Its biggest disadvantage is entropy: bottles move around, get silently consumed, or get just plain lost. (That happens with a stockroom system, too, but at a slower rate). After a while, your map of the chemical inventory is useless - and for popular reagents, "a while" might be about two weeks.

That brings up the moving-chemicals problem, and to be honest, I've never seen a good solution to that one. Ideally, any time a person borrows some reagent from its known location, they scan the bar code so the system knows that it's moved. In practice, you know, you're just using it for a couple of days. Or you're just running one reaction, and you're going to take it right back. It's just right down the hall; the folks down there know where it is. Right. A stockroom system keeps this from randomizing things as quickly, but no matter what, this sort of Brownian motion is going to scramble things eventually.

So there has to be a regular inventory taken, no matter whose system you're using. Whether that's someone from the stockroom coming through and scanning all the benches and cabinets, or whether you declare Inventory Day and make all the chemists do it themselves, it has to be done. Twice a year is not too often, in my experience.

If anyone has solutions to some of these problems that I haven't touched on, feel free to share them in the comments. But please, no "Just Make Everyone Act Responsibly For Once" recommendations. Let's assume that people are intrinsically looking for the easy ways out, and work from that - it's a worldview that has never disappointed me.

Comments (45) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. Jason on October 22, 2010 7:50 AM writes...

It seems like there should be an RFID solution here. Given the range of those things it seems like you could actively track where things are going without much work for the chemists.

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2. DerekH on October 22, 2010 7:59 AM writes...

Agree with the RFID Tag but use remote readers at the doors

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3. Gram Quantity on October 22, 2010 8:01 AM writes...

RFID is the best current solution. We looked at this for the large chemical stores of Pfizer. No matter where you take the chemical, the facility "knows" where that bottle is currently located and updates the database in real time. Initial overhead cost, then trivial RFID barcodes from then on out. Very slick system.

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4. Ash on October 22, 2010 8:03 AM writes...

I was hoping this topic was going not to be on reagents and solvents, but on keeping track of all those batches of things made or tested in the lab. Being able to find specific compounds again.

I think the last thing I loggeg into the storage database in my lab had an invetory number of 4500 or so. A mere 4500 samples in the lab and it is already becoming miserable to find them in the freezers, because 99 percent of the time the sample is where it is supposed to be, but when it is not, good luck finding it amoungst the 4500 others. ( and at -80 °C, your fingers get cold mighty quickly searching for things.)

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5. Steve Joby on October 22, 2010 8:06 AM writes...

I'm sure if there isn't already then there should be an app for that!

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6. Virgil on October 22, 2010 8:15 AM writes...

I've had an Excel spreadsheet system in the lab' for over 10 years (fields: name, alternative names, source, size of bottle, Mol. Wt., catalog #, storage place, date purchased, notes on toxicity). It works great for our stock of about 1200 reagents.

However, I work at a large University, and the bigger problem is keeping the authorities happy. In the past 2 years our Environmental Health and Safety people have burned through 3 different sets of trial software for chemical inventory, MSDS tracking etc. Every time they debut a new system, all the information has to be transferred manually (because of course the systems are not compatible).

On the most recent occasion, I simply told them if they wanted chemicals entered into the new system, they could provide me with a free technician for 2 weeks to complete the task, or they could pay my tech's salary for 2 weeks. I sent them the Excel sheet, stating that was my final offer, and CC'ed the Dean for good measure. I never heard back, and our most recent EH&S safety inspection was a breeze. Maybe they finally got the message.

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7. Brian on October 22, 2010 8:33 AM writes...

Derek, I feel your pain. You know it is exceptionally difficult when you have to account for every last bit of the chemical you are using. I remember when I was working for a generic pharmaceutical company, you would sign out a lot of the API you were analyzing and others would need some of the same. You were chasing after them with an inventory sheet so you could account for every gram.

I don't know if this is universal but I recall meth drug precursors like (Morpholine, for example) being locked up when I was in California. You had to write down the book and page number and the amount you used and one person was responsible for the key to the lock box.

Sure people might gripe about the procedure but everyone becomes use to it. It isn't ideal but I have never worked in a place that had an accurate inventory. People get lazy.

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8. MattF on October 22, 2010 8:44 AM writes...

Y'know, speaking as someone who does simulations for a living, I'd bet that 'Chemical Inventory' is something that could be simulated, and I'd bet that you'd learn something from a simulation. Like, e.g., what are the critical supplies, where are the bottlenecks, what is the best strategy-- stockroom, distributed, mixed, etc.

And, as a semi-commercial message to my sponsors, all kinds of things are ripe for simulation. I once saw a simulation of information flow in piles of paper on a desk-- it managed to be informative and hilarious at the same time. FYI, less-used documents filter down to the bottom of the pile.

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9. Quintus on October 22, 2010 8:51 AM writes...

I established a Chemfinder database for our chemicals and samples and ensured that one person in the lab had responsibility for it. The system worked quite well.

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10. milkshake on October 22, 2010 9:04 AM writes...

@7: I don't think morpholine is on the watched precursor list, and it is definitely not used in clandestine meth production.

DEA was been watching piperidine because of PCP but I think they gave up on the hassle - too many people use it in large volumes, for example in peptide synthesis. The same thing with acetic anhydride.

What is still watched is concentrated methylamine solution in larger quantity, benzyl chloride, hypophosphoric acid and its salts etc - and everything related to ephedrine and safrole. And chloral hydrate (being class 4 hypnotic). And propionic anhydride. So you run easily into paperwork trouble ordering common materials for legit chemistry

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11. katbene on October 22, 2010 9:05 AM writes...

If anyone is successfully using RFID technology to inventory lab chemicals or drum inventories, I'd like to hear more about it.

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12. Brian on October 22, 2010 9:20 AM writes...

@10 Right you are. Wrong cyclic amine. My bad. But I remember Iodine being a crazy problem. Who hasn't used iodine in a developing tank for a TLC ?

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13. CA dude on October 22, 2010 9:22 AM writes...

@10 California has it's own problems associated with storing so called "precursors" to illegal drugs. The CA law tracks hundres of compounds not tracked anywhere else (the Dept. of Justice enforces this, it was passed by a the state legislature), and the compounds (including methylamine, but not methylamine HCl, or diethyl, but not dimethyl malonate I believe) must be under lock and key and a separate trackable log updated with every use. Very annoying for pharma.

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14. Dr Van Nostrand on October 22, 2010 9:22 AM writes...

At my previous company, not only the chemical bottles, but also every chemist had a bar code on their lab coat. When taking a chemical from the store, you would scan the bottle, and then the code on your coat, and the system would know who had taken the bottle.

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15. Andrés on October 22, 2010 9:49 AM writes...

Until now, I was sure that this was an exclusive problem of my lab here in South America. I never thought that this could happen up there. Shame on all of us!!!
Keep stealing all the chemicals from your labmates and be happy.

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16. RB Woodweird on October 22, 2010 10:02 AM writes...

About bar codes: I always wondered why a 50 cent can of peas from the market could have a bar code on it but a $200 reagent from SAF didn't.

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17. You're Pfizered on October 22, 2010 10:06 AM writes...

Phenylacetone is also on that list of chemicals you can't really get a hold of. I know, I tried it a bunch of years ago before thinking about what it could be used for. Ironically, you could buy the 4-bromophenyl version.

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18. startup on October 22, 2010 10:18 AM writes...

@12 You're correct, at our facility we have only person authorized to order iodine, so every single group in a fairly large building has to go through him.

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19. Anonymous on October 22, 2010 10:25 AM writes...

how about sushi conveyor belt style chemical stockroom. Just wait around until the bottle you want comes around. I'm sure it would be safe!

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20. Cloud on October 22, 2010 10:44 AM writes...

@Gram Quantity- you guys actually have a functioning RFID system up and running? Last time I asked vendors about that I was told there were technical issues that they were still working out. That never made much sense to me, since Walmart has it all worked out. I'm glad to hear that the science world is finally catching up with retail....

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21. Brian on October 22, 2010 11:06 AM writes...

@18 Hope that you don't QC release compounds by doing a water content analysis by KF. Iodine is present as a component in Karl Fischer titrants.

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22. DLIB on October 22, 2010 11:58 AM writes...

Issues with RFID...Won't work on metal containers or inside metal lined fridges. Might not be happy at -80C either. Other potential issues is that if there is metal around that can act like an antennae for the RF energy, it might heat up. That last one is extremely unlikely though. Give my friends a ring at Alien Technology and they'd be happy to talk to you.

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23. Anonymous on October 22, 2010 12:05 PM writes...

@11 I'm not sure if you're looking for a replacement for the bar code labels or going for the sort of longer-range tracking some people have mentioned, but in the latter case you might want to consider the degree of radio transparency in our campus buildings. I know I can never pick up a cell phone signal in RAL, although my proximity to the NMR lab probably doesn't help.

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24. Tom on October 22, 2010 2:45 PM writes...

I work in the RTLS (real-time location system) industry, tracking both assets and people as they move around hospitals (it's where the money is at these days). Some newer hospitals are being built with RFID chokepoints in every doorway, the trick being that two RFID readers are actually installed in each doorway about 3" apart so that the system knows if the person or asset is entering or leaving the room. It's not the technology I work on, but that's probably the best choice given the large number of RFID tags needed for a chemical tracking system.

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25. DLIB on October 22, 2010 2:58 PM writes...

BTW, there is a difference in active and passive tags. The hospitals that use awarepoint and the like i believe use active tags and something like the zigbee standard. This might be a better solution than a passive tag.

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26. BravoZule on October 22, 2010 3:58 PM writes...

I may have set up the system #14 mentions. An important addition is that at certain intervals (four weeks?) someone from the stockroom would go to every room in the chem building and scan every barcoded item. This way we not only knew who had originally received it, and when, but also where it wound up later. Empty bottles were supposed to be returned for 'scanning out'. Worked quite well, but not perfectly.

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27. Anonymous BMS Researcher on October 22, 2010 8:55 PM writes...

I'm on the bio side, where sample tracking is a constant pain in the gluteus maximus.

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28. barry on October 22, 2010 11:17 PM writes...

I helped implement an RFID tag system for chemical inventory for Chiron six years ago. A scanner at the doorway captured the information as you walked out with your reagent/solvent and attributed the bottles to your ID badge. We never did get to adding the scanners to track lab-to-lab transfers of chemicals. Capture happened only when bottles entered/left the (manned) stockroom or the (unmanned) satellite.

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29. Anonymous on October 23, 2010 12:27 PM writes...

If no one keeps the inventory up to date, it means chemists will spend more time doing research and less time trying to please the bean counters. Sounds good to me!

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30. Slurpy on October 23, 2010 12:42 PM writes...

@29 Until you go to do your synthesis and discover that three of the reagents you need were finished off in the last two weeks, and no one has ordered them yet.

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31. Anonymous on October 24, 2010 4:59 AM writes...

The key technique is to delete any bottles that are delivered to you from the inventory system. That way no other bugger in the building can decide to "borrow" that catalyst that you brought in from STREM that is the only thing that is going to make your reaction work. Public- spirited ? No. But then I work for big blue and it's a dog-eat-dog world right now !

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32. Jesper Kristensen on October 24, 2010 7:56 AM writes...

Being in academia - and thus no $$ for an expensive commercial inventory solution - we desided to develop an open source system. Some 5-6 yeras down the road we now have a system that covers the basic needs for us at the university with ~200 people doing wet chemistry.

You can download and install the system for free, or alternatively a paid subscribtion service is now being offered aswell. (Expect a generous discount to the prices listed on the homepage if you are from an academic institution).

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33. Sili on October 24, 2010 9:37 AM writes...

This may well be a stupid suggestion, but aren't most people forced to use electronic labbooks now?

If that's the case, why isn't it possible to set up the system so that the only way to enter chemicals for a reaction is by scanning the bottle used? And then let the database keep track of who used a given chemical last. That way you'll also automatically know which batch of raw material was used for which reaction in case questions of purity arises. And it should even be possible to automatically keep track of how much material has been used so that a new portion can be ordered before supplies run out.

Or is this just pie-in-the-sky?

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34. Anonymous on October 24, 2010 7:20 PM writes...

You seem to have left out "have the interns catalogue everything every copule of weeks or so."

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35. Jonadab the Unsightly One on October 25, 2010 6:03 AM writes...

@ 16. RB Woodweird:
The fifty-cent can of peas comes with a barcode because otherwise too many grocery stores (especially large chains) won't stock it. This is an amazingly powerful motivator for the manufacturers.

I'm not sure whether that could be applied to chemicals, though. To get the thing started, there would have to be a single buyer (or coalition of buyers) with enough clout to convince the supply outfits to start affixing barcodes to every chemical.

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36. okemist on October 25, 2010 10:24 AM writes...

As I remember at bayer, we were mandated to inventory every 6 months, and running the kilo lab I was responsible for an inventory of 6-800 commercial reagents and would spend a whole week doing taking care of it. The problem was the antiquated 1985 laptops we were given and the software package was so poor that even after 3 years the inventory was NEVER correct. It was no less than 5 times a week collegues would come searching for things I knew didn't exist, It was just easier to order.
I am sure some WiFi system would be better, heck I do have a barcode scanning app on my google phone.

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37. R. C. on October 27, 2010 12:21 AM writes...

One suggestion -- Go the RFID route. Each bottle is tagged and weighed when it enters the building, and weighed periodically thereafter. The weighing can be manual, or involve storing everything on shelf-shaped scales. Any time the weight changes and there's a new bottle on the shelf (or one is taken off), calculate the moved bottle's weight and update it. The system should be smart enough to tell when someone's just leaning on the shelf, and discard that data. Use the RFID tag to track the bottle ID, weights, date of each weighing, and another value to help the system tell what weight implies that the bottle is empty.

Interfacing this whole mess with wireless -- suddenly, your network knows exactly where in the building each sample is, and a guesstimate about what percent of it is left.

Not perfect, and some of the equipment logistics could be a serious pain. But, if you could get the scales to work, and distribute them throughout a building, all the records could automatically update anytime the bottle was set down on an appropriate surface. The only things going unrecorded would be stuff left out on counters / workspaces that weren't integrated into the system. The system could also probably flag bottles which hadn't been on a scale in over a week, to lightly discourage (but not completely prevent) private hording / borrowing.

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38. newnickname on October 27, 2010 12:24 PM writes...

For a single research group, my favorite system is one dedicated Aldrich "inventory" catalog, a yellow highlighter and post it notes. Highlight what we have or bought; post-it note in the correct place for non-Aldrich items; post-it note for other annotations, if needed (weird storage locations, etc.).

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39. Jean Marois on October 27, 2010 1:43 PM writes...

We developed an internal web-based system for Merck around 10 years ago that accomplished all the issues you've addressed: including supporting central stock rooms, distributed stock rooms, consignment areas, lab-to-lab tracking of reagents and synthesized intermediates using mobile & wedge barcode scanners, substructure searching of inventory and catalogues. The system also supported lab supplies, office supplies and other consumables. With all the cutbacks and site closures, the development team and system are starting a new company, Scigilian, which will be marketing this system. Feel free to reach out to me to find out more of this system.

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40. Jean Marois on October 27, 2010 2:01 PM writes...

@Jason, we had looked into using RFIDs but the cost of each tag was still too high, and our chemist liked the human readable barcodes we put on the bottles, especially when we also printed the structure on the bottle.

@Ash, we actually track all intermediates, final compounds and biologics. Before closing the site, we had about 75,000 bottles of reagents and 32,000 intermediates.

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41. Jean Marois on October 27, 2010 2:28 PM writes...

@Ash, @Virgil we tracked all intermediates, final compounds and biologics. In the end, we had about 75,000 bottles of reagents, 32,000 bottles of intermediates.

@Gram, We looked into RFID tags but the costs were still too high for the tags and installing the readers in each lab.

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42. Chris Holmquist on December 7, 2010 1:13 AM writes...

I spent a great deal of time on this problem while working at AstraZeneca in Wilmington. The problem with RFID is that while you can (with great expense) put tags on the bottles and readers on the doors, that solution only tells you what lab the reagent is in. We found that knowing what room a reagent is in isn't much help - just like knowing what stack of books in the library a particular book is in isn't much help either.

The best solutions require as little user action as possible when moving/deleting inventory and entry upon ordering or receipt.

In the end, we came up with distributed wireless scanners that allowed users to update inventory by simply scanning two barcodes combined with an in-house program for searching and ordering compounds.

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43. Brian on January 5, 2011 10:16 PM writes...

I am somewhat behind on some of your discussions here and found it all very interesting to read about some of your problems in the lab and tracking chemical inventory storage. We are in the works of finalizing development of a scalable RFID chemical inventory system at an affordable cost. We are a Scientific Supply and distribution company as well as an RFID company. This summer we will be coming out with our own brand of chemicals that are RFID labeled bottles direct from the manufacturer. Should any of you have any questions of would like more information please feel free to contact me directly.

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44. certification in pilates on December 21, 2011 10:03 PM writes...

It could also create a financial stress on the BAA. At $110 for U.S. residents and $150 for everyone else, entry fees provide the organizers with around $3 million. Combine that with credit card issuers that are slow to pay and the BAA might not have that cash on hand until after the race if registration were a month before. That would mean that the BAA would have to borrow (more?) money to do organize and hold the event. That would lead to higher registration fees. That sum might be small compared to what sponsors provide, Ive never organized an event of this magnitude, but Id guess that its probably needed 3-4 months in advance of the race. Opening the race 6 months in advance allows them to have it on hand.

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45. James on February 9, 2015 3:57 PM writes...

A PhD student in our university synthesis lab recently developed a browser-based chemical inventory system that he's spun out into a company. It doesn't have any RFID integration, but it does integrate with simple barcodes. All groups in our department have been using it for over a year without any problems.

One of the features we like is that the whole chemical stock of the department can be searched - useful for the university safety officers. It's got blazingly fast structure searching too. Anyway, if you're a university or small industry research laboratory, head to to check it out.

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