watching over the lab

June 5, 2007 at 1:18 pm | | everyday science, grad life, great finds, lab safety, nerd

There has been a wave of thefts in the physics buildings on campus—losers stealing lab equipment—so we decided to have someone watch over our labs all night and day:


He startles us often. But he’s the hardest working grad student!

faulty new brunswick freezer = fire

May 2, 2007 at 8:55 am | | hardware, lab safety

I received an interesting email yesterday from some of the facilities managers here at Stanford:

On February 26, 2007 we had a small fire originating on one of the circuit boards of the power supply for a New Brunswick -80 freezer…. I was alerted by an automatic alarm system that text messages my cell phone. I responded and put the 3 inch flame out with a spray bottle of water. Had it been on the weekend, the board would have totally burned and possibly spread the flame to surrounding components with disasterous results. That same day I called the New Brusnwick factory and spoke with tech support lead guy … about this incident. I explained New Brunswick should contact all customers who had purchased one of these freezers and replace the power supplies immediately. Obviously they did not. In fact, instead of replacing the entire power supply on our unit, I have subsequently learned they just replaced the board that burned.

After being repaired with a new control board, this same freezer again started acting up this week and yesterday a technician … came out. After inspecting the power supply, he shut the freezer off. He said it again presented a fire hazard and could not be turned on until repaired. The freezer was holding temperature OK – meaning it was not something that was obvious. The only clue was indicator lights on the outside of the freezer saying “low battery” and “low incoming supply voltage”.

Scary. Here are some pics of the control board (post fire) and the nameplate of the freezer model:

closeup-of-burned-component.jpg location-of-burned-board.jpg nameplate.jpg

So check to see if you have one of these freezers and be careful.

laser + coffee = blue?

March 27, 2007 at 10:28 am | | hardware, lab safety, stupid technology, wild web

This guy decided to heat his coffee using a very powerful laser. Stupid, right? Even more stupid, he filmed it and put it on the internets. That’s a good way to get fired. (I’m just jealous.)

[youtube OYvynmK0Slo laser coffee]

My question: How come the light is blue? The safety placard says it’s Nd:YAG (invisible IR 1064 nm) or HeNe (red 633 nm). Even doubled Nd:YAG should be green (532 nm). Strange.

Maybe things looks different at 2 kW.

(Thanks to Geekologie.)

Laboratory Safety

February 23, 2007 at 9:25 am | | lab safety, nerd, science and the public

Not even the president bothers with it. Waft, don’t sniff, Mr. President.

LN2, the quicker picker upper

February 14, 2007 at 6:03 pm | | everyday science, great finds, lab safety

While working on a mechanical pump, a leak was sprung whereby the entire oil reservoir found its way onto the ground. The beauty of mechanical pump oil is that it’s viscous, coats everything it touches, spreads like a STD in a co-ed dorm, and isn’t particularly easy to absorb. So rather than deforesting the Amazon and taking a bath in the stuff to clean it up, I decided to try a little experiment.

1000mL of liquid nitrogen was obtain from Praxair and used without further purification. To the floor in the lab was quickly added 1000mL of liquid nitrogen. Upon addition, it was observed that the pump oil was vitrified into a glass. Upon evaporation of the residual nitrogen, a plastic scrapper (TAP Plastics) was used to scrape the frozen pump oil into a pile. Approximately 300mL of pump oil was collected and analyzed via optical spectroscopy (it looked yellow).

It’s not quite as versatile as club soda and lemon juice, but it worked.

The author would like to thank the voices in his head, for the stimulating conversations on the subject. Funding: NSF #109.3008.8849

laser cowboys

January 10, 2007 at 2:28 pm | | everyday science, grad life, hardware, lab safety, nerd

The 23rd century cowboy…



Hey, is there a “sexy men of the spectroscopy laboratory” calendar out there? Here are January and August for you!

better gloves

December 5, 2006 at 6:00 pm | | everyday science, hardware, lab safety, stupid technology

Man, my least favorite part about wearing nitrile gloves is that my palms get all sweaty. Gross. So I came up with a great way to avoid that discomfort:


Isn’t that great. Much more comfortable. Now I can work for hours without changing my gloves, all the while feeling vented and fresh.

And then it hit me: why vent just the palm when you can vent the back of your hand, too? That’s when I came up with an even better idea:


I should really patent these!

This idea was so successful that I went to work on my safety glasses. Did you know that if you remove those silly lenses, the safety glasses are much lighter? And I don’t think those lenses actually do anything, because I can see much better without them, now (they were all foggy from a bunch of solvents, acids, etc. splashing on them).

This post has been censored by your friendly lab-safety coordinator. We apologize for any inconvenience. –Sam

resistance is futile

August 31, 2006 at 9:47 pm | | everyday science, lab safety, nerd

I needed to illuminate a vial of frozen dye solution with a laser and view the fluorescence. But I didn’t have enough hands to hold the vial, turn off the lights, and hold a long-pass filter (to block the excitation light). So I thought, What would W.E. Moerner do (WWWEMD)? Suddenly, I knew what I had to do: tape the filter to my safety glasses. Genius! (In the past, W.E. has encouraged me to tape diffraction gratings to my glasses and look in the microscope.)

Figure 1. The contraption.

This worked like a charm: I simultaneously protected my eyes and blocked the excitation light with a wink of an eye.

Figure 2. My friends call me “seven-eyes.”

Feel free to use this idea next time you get sick of holding an optical filter in front of your eyes. Just send the royalty check to me.

laser safety

July 31, 2006 at 1:22 pm | | lab safety

The Moerner lab had its annual laser-safety training (by W.E.), which is always interesting and exciting. I’ve calculated some safety parameters for one of the lasers I use: an Ar-ion laser operating at 11 W. First, it is important to know the minimum permissible exposure (MPE), or the amount of laser energy your eyes may receive without being damaged. This is deterimed by the color of the source and the viewing time. With visible light, assuming an exposure time equal to the blink response, the MPE = 2.1×10-3 W/cm2.

I can now use the MPE to determine safe viewing distances of intra-beam and diffuse reflections (e.g. off a card). The region where is it unsafe to view the beam—i.e. where you will exceed the MPE—is called the nominal hazard zone (NHZ). For intra-beam viewing, the NHZ = 2 km, so you have to be over 2 km away to be able to look directly in the beam for the time it takes you to blink. Our lab isn’t that big. To view the beam within the lab, you would need goggles with OD > 5 to avoid damage. Cool!

As for diffuse reflections, the NHZ is 40 cm. So if you hold the card at arms length, you should be ok. But use goggles, anyway!

The equations for all these calculations are found in the appendix in the American National Standards Institute book on laser safety. Have fun!

Thermite: A Classic

July 18, 2006 at 11:46 pm | | lab safety, science and the public

There are a handful of reactions used almost exclusively to convince undergrads that chemistry is hip and/or cool. You’ve got your oscillating reactions, exploding hydrogen balloons, and all sorts of pretty colors turning clear. But, the granddaddy of them all is the thermite reaction. (Our friend Dylan at Tenderbutton contributed the melting slot machine).

One of the summer classes just fired off this classic reaction, and I happened to be there to record it. Check it out.


Impressive Caleb, but check out the masters.

lab-cleanup day

June 30, 2006 at 6:31 pm | | everyday science, lab safety

The Moerner lab had it’s (approximately) annual lab-cleanup day: We spent from 10am–3pm cleaning up the lab (with a break for lunch, of course). Here are some pics, including some before-and-after:

peoplecleaning2.jpgFigure 1. Look at everyone cleaning!

nickdye.jpgFigure 2. Unlabeled vial?!? I bet it’s dye.

Read more of this post…

explosive chemistry

June 1, 2006 at 8:05 pm | | lab safety, literature

Dylan had a funny post about azides and their danger. It really seems like labs that use azides explode all the time. That’s why I’m a p-chemist: just don’t shoot the laser in your eye and you’ll be fine.


But the all-time winner of the stupid-stuff-to-do-in-lab award goes to the infamous quote above from Merer, A. J.; Mulliken, R. S. Ultraviolet Spectra and Excited States of Ethylene and its Alkyl Derivatives. Chem. Rev. 1969, 69, 639–656.

Quote: “Evans boldly put 50 atm of ethylene (C2H4, trans-C2H2D2, or C2D4) in a cell with 25 atm of O2. The apparatus subsequently blew up, but luckily not before he had obtained the spectra shown in Figure 8.”

lab inspections

May 27, 2006 at 1:27 pm | | everyday science, lab safety

Stanford and the county are very careful about lab safety and waste disposal. Maybe it’s just California regulation, but sometimes it goes a little over the top. My new favorite requirement: Dalbir, who is our department’s Safety Compliance Officer, tells us that we need secondary containment (i.e. a bucket) for our propane torch. I think that’s pretty stupid: I’m pretty sure propane isn’t liquid at room temperature and pressure…

easy as 1, 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 2.4, 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, 3.4

April 24, 2006 at 11:57 am | | everyday science, lab safety

Labs at Stanford are supposed to have all these safety posters everywhere: we’re super cautious about lab safety. Part of this has to do with the hyper-regulation in California. Here’s one of my favorite posters:


It’s so easy now! Really, the best part is that there are even bulleted subsections under sections under numbers. That’s more than simple: it’s complex!

french college chemistry explosion

March 24, 2006 at 10:21 pm | | lab safety, news

BBC NEWS | Europe | Huge blast rocks French college
Not very much information, yet, but at least one person died. Hard to tell whether this is chemistry-related or terrorism…

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