A huge number of scientific advancements have occurred in the last twenty-five years. So many of them are considered mainstream and normal today that it’s difficult to imagine how revolutionary they were when they first came out. From the advent of modern day stem cell research at Osiris Therapeutics in 1999 to the first seedless watermelon in 1988, science has been pushing humanity forward; not just on a purely scientific frontier, but also on safety (the invention of the antilock brake in 1990), and convenience (the Chunnel in 1994). It’s easy to forget that so many inventions, discoveries, and feats of engineering had their humble beginnings in research laboratories equipped with the latest lab equipment. Here are four of the hardest working pieces of lab equipment you’ll find.
- The Large Hadron Collider – One of the biggest purely scientific inventions of the last century is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). As the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator ever built, the device certainly lives up to its name. It measures 27 kilometers in circumference and has been used to smash together proton beams with forces up to 3.5 Tera electron volts.
As fun as that sounds, the LHC is essentially a giant piece of lab equipment that is being used to explore the very fundamentals of the universe. Chief among its stated goals, researchers hope to explore conundrums in physics like what precisely is dark matter and dark energy, and what is the origin of mass. Using this tech, physicists produce over 30 petabytes of data every year from experiments run at the LHC, with over 100 petabytes permanently archived on tape.
- Fume Hoods – One of the primary challenges in any lab is how to deal with the hazardous properties of many chemicals that are necessary in modern labs. These can include dealing with toxic or corrosive vapors, combustibility, or radiological and biological hazards. Tragic accidents can occur when proper safety protocols aren’t met, as evidenced by the widely publicized death of research assistant Sheharbano Sangji at UCLA in 2008.
Fume hoods are considered so essential that many labs will design their entire workspace around them. Designing fume hoods to properly protect labs is essential, and many companies, such as LOC Scientific, offer calibration, design, and installation of this vital piece of lab equipment. Fume hoods, when properly installed and used, have helped researchers develop thousands of compounds that improve people’s lives all over the world.
- Mass Spectrometers – This essential piece of lab equipment is used to identify unknown compounds. It does so by taking a microscopic sample of the compound to be identified and subjecting it to various magnetic and/or electric fields. These fields create ions, which are then analyzed to find their masses. Because every known element and their isotopes have a specific mass, a mass spectrometrist can assemble the pieces of the sample to precisely determine what the original source material was. As NASA puts it, “a mass spectrometrist is someone who figures out what something is by smashing it with a hammer and looking at the pieces.”
Mass spectrometers are usually paired with other types of analysis machinery, such as gas or liquid chromatographs. The sheer size of a mass spectrometer combined with the need to isolate the equipment from possible contamination means that labs have to be designed accordingly. Mass spectrometers are extremely sensitive to vibration, so care must be taken to isolate them from mechanical or electrical systems that can disrupt their operation.
- The Computer – Even though the modern computer seems like an everyday ordinary object today, the era of the modern PC is less than fifty years old. Its impact on the lab in both design and research cannot be overstated. From easily being able to record and store data to the ability to make intricate computations nearly instantly, the computer swiftly revolutionized labs around the world.
Information management isn’t the only impact that computers have had on the modern lab. Data analysis has advanced by leaps and bounds thanks to a computer’s ability to handle increasingly large sets of data and help interpret that data relatively quickly. Another area that computers have affected are with computer-controlled equipment that can automate repetitive tasks. Add in the evolution of ARPANET into the modern internet, and it’s easy to see why the computer is one of the most necessary and used pieces of lab equipment anywhere.