In the Lab, Take the High Ground

So the sequester is here. Hopefully it will be shallow and short. Personally, I fear the austerity attitude will infect the private sector just at the time our recovery is accelerating.

Certainly these times qualify as unsettled. There are conflicting visions about the future. So how should we lab rats respond? Just like we do at home…prioritize our needs and then look for ways to mitigate the problem—that is, protect the essentials and look for ways to reduce waste.

The real winners in these unsettled times will be the wise and innovative ones. They will see that the sequester and its spillover to the private sector will pass. They will stay on the high ground and look for detours that avoid the flood plains filled with churning water.

In the lab, take the high ground and look critically at each need and ask: Is there an opportunity here?

Consumables: Shop carefully, ask for discounts, and team up
If a project is expected to continue indefinitely, buying ahead might qualify for a volume discount. Look for specials. Ask purchasing to review the discount plan you have for your consumables. Along the way, try to educate him/her about the critical attributes of the items you need. The sequester generally is a significant percentage of a small number, so there may be options available, like ordering quarterly rather than monthly as a way to get deeper discounts.

Solvent recycling
A typical sample (in the μg range) is eluted in 10 mL of mobile phase. Despite the fact that the column effluent contains only ppm of analyte, it is discarded. The contaminants (analytes) are in the ppm range. Plus they differ in boiling points by tens to hundreds of degrees. B/R Instrument Corp. ( makes automated spinning band distillation systems that deliver 50 plate separations of liter quantities in one hour. Proven protocols exist for common solvents. So, if you run an LC lab, mobile phase recycling should be part of your operation. If it is not, you are throwing away money, not to mention the environmental impact.

Insource pipet and liquid handler verification and calibration
Air-driven pipets are ubiquitous. They are used by many, often without training in proper technique. Artel ( makes calibration systems for single handheld pipets to 384-tip heads for robotic liquid handlers. If the lab insources verification and calibration, it is easy to stretch this to operator qualification. Then, if a problem is discovered, you can investigate whether it is the operator or the pipet, or both. It is much easier and quicker to check upon first suspicion than to spend a week or two outsourcing services. The outsourcing does little to improve technique proficiency and hence data quality.

Pipet tip recycling
Some facilities buy millions of pipet tips per year; a few use millions per month or less. These generally pass through the lab only once on their way to the landfill or incinerator. The environmental footprint is large, but IonField Systems ( developed the TipCharger, which cleans pipet tips to cleaner-than-new with a plasma. Higher-volume labs report payback in less than a year. Know of someone looking to start a business? Here is one that could service several smaller labs around one city.

Capital equipment
Let’s say there’s a freeze on capital spending. This could be particularly bad if it prevents a lab from expanding to meet increased workload. In tough times, look for aggressive ways to leap ahead of the competition.

For example, you know your lab is at capacity now. You are confident that new GC will bring in some revenue. It would be nice to automate sample prep at the same time. This is a no-brainer, since you already have one such system, but you need another, perhaps two.

How about renting or leasing? How about leasing used instruments? For many instruments, the used and refurbished market is very active. A gas chromatograph has a useful life of 20 years. A GC that is two years old has a long life expectancy, if properly maintained. Quantum Analytics ( is one of many firms that scour the auctions for used instruments. They buy them and refurbish them to new condition, and then offer the option of buying, renting, or leasing. “Renting or leasing to own” is probably the most attractive plan today, since the acquisition cost is spread out over years and the payments are deductible as an operating expense. When the contract is up, you can buy the lab workhorse for a small payment, at often less than 10% of the replacement cost.

Yes, eventually even the best will wear out, but if you have several instruments of the same model, you may be able to extend the life of some by retiring one and reusing the parts to keep the others running for a few more months or years. When the workhorses are no longer worth their feed, retire them and ask for a volume discount on the replacements.

Quantum is not unique, but they do understand the instrument business, so they can rent or lease to startups that lack two-year audited financials.

Don’t be afraid to look for bargains. Two decades ago, one of my clients owned a general analytical laboratory. She had to move and had the opportunity to dramatically expand capacity. She secured a bank loan of mid six figures. When she was about to place the orders, I asked her to just shop the used market first. In a few months she found good instruments, fumehoods, and balances, and saved about two-thirds off new. I recall that she also picked up some experienced staff, too, and paid the bank back very quickly.

In short, in “interesting times” remember: Take the high ground and look for opportunities.

Robert L. Stevenson, Ph.D., is a Consultant and Editor of Separation Science for American Laboratory/Labcompare; e-mail:

It’s too soon to tell what effect the sequester will have on the scientific community, but one thing is certain: Now, more than ever, it is crucial to make smart purchasing decisions. American Laboratory/Labcompare is committed to helping you find comprehensive solutions, while maximizing the equipment currently in your lab, and helping you get the most out of your purchases. You can count on our continued guidance and support.

What effect will the sequester have on you and/or your lab? Leave a comment below.