Lab chem­i­cals

You might ex­pect sci­en­tists to encounter haz­ards out in the field. But lab­o­ra­to­ries aren’t safe havens ei­ther. We asked re­searchers about the most dan­ger­ous things they work with.

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Liq­uid helium JENNY ARDE­LEAN, grad­u­ate stu­dent in me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing at Columbia Uni­ver­sity To study the in­trin­sic prop­er­ties of ma­te­ri­als like atom­i­cally thin semi­con­duc­tors, we need to get rid of heat, which causes sub­tle vi­bra­tions and makes our data fuzzy. We use liq­uid helium to cool sub­stances to mi­nus 453°F, a bit warmer than space. Our lab pipes it through a closed sys­tem to avoid hav­ing to trans­fer—and risk spilling—the ex­pen­sive liq­uid. If that hap­pened, the helium could evap­o­rate, burn off your skin, or dis­place oxy­gen so you’d suf­fo­cate.

High-pow­ered laser

DON­ALD UMSTADTER, di­rec­tor of the Ex­treme Light Lab at the Uni­ver­sity of Ne­braska at Lin­coln My lab de­vel­ops imag­ing tech­niques us­ing the Dio­cles Laser, which pro­duces a beam roughly 1 bil­lion times more in­tense than light on the sur­face of the sun. But with proper train­ing, it’s ac­tu­ally very safe be­cause we fo­cus it in a pulse that’s less than a tril­lionth of a se­cond long, in an area roughly a mil­lionth of a square me­ter, and keep it all in­side a closed box. Some­day we even hope to sup­ple­ment tra­di­tional X-rays with less-ra­dioac­tive Dio­cles imag­ing.

Snake venom

JEF­FREY O’BRIEN, re­cent doc­tor­ate in chem­istry from the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Irvine An­tivenins work for spe­cific species. Our lab de­cided to make one from nanopar­ti­cles that in­hibit the tox­ins of many types of snakes. To test it, we or­dered about 15 ven­oms, which we stored in a frozen box marked with a skull and cross­bones. These sam­ples come from the world’s dead­li­est rep­tiles, such as the black mamba, so they must not get into your blood­stream. Even when you’re weigh­ing out the freeze-dried pow­ders, you’re hy­per­fo­cused.


MICHELLE LU, ju­nior at Pom­per­aug High School in South­bury Con­necti­cut I was one of four stu­dents to rep­re­sent the United States in the In­ter­na­tional Chem­istry Olympiad, com­pet­ing against kids from 75 other coun­tries. In one round, the judges tested our abil­ity to syn­the­size 2-naph­thoic acid and chlo­ro­form, a com­mon anes­thetic, from a food fla­vor­ing. The process also cre­ates hypochlor­ous acid, which can cause se­ri­ous burns and blind­ness. Even though this acid is dan­ger­ous (it’s very un­sta­ble and re­ac­tive), it’s pretty com­mon in chem­istry.


DAVID MEIER, re­search sci­en­tist at Pa­cific North­west Na­tional Lab My team is cre­at­ing a data­base that could help law en­force­ment trace plu­to­nium, used in nu­clear fuel and atomic bombs, back to its coun­try, or even spe­cific re­ac­tor, of ori­gin. Some­thing as seem­ingly mi­nor as the tem­per­a­ture of the fa­cil­ity can give the ma­te­rial com­pletely dif­fer­ent col­ors. To un­der­stand these changes, we re-cre­ate them in a lab. Nat­u­rally, we keep our plu­to­nium sam­ples in a lead-lined con­tainer, wear at least two pairs of rub­ber gloves, and track ra­di­a­tion lev­els in real time.

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