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Lab Utilities Make the Grade

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 10:08am
Paul Livingstone

A systems approach is transforming delivery of the key raw materials necessary for scientific research.

An alternative to conventional laboratory air change solutions, the Halo uses the same Neutrodine molecular filtration system technology contained in Erlab’s ductless fume hood products. All types of research laboratories rely on a set of core utilities to enable and support work functions. These are often overlooked as a commodity called “consumables”, but in reality they are indispensable nutrients that vary greatly in quality and reliability. Just as a human can’t exist without water, oxygen and food, the research facility cannot make do without water, gas, air, lighting and, increasingly, high-throughput data.

In today’s laboratories, much thought is given to workflow. And in designing and outfitting a laboratory, whether it’s a fresh, new facility or a much-needed makeover, attention must be paid to how researchers will attain fresh air to breathe, and pure water and gas for running scientific experiments and reliable vacuum powering instruments.

These can all seem straightforward on their own, but as the types of instrumentation and scientific methods expand in both quantity and sensitivity, attention must increasingly be paid to finding and delivering innovative solutions that ease the pain of managing all of these resources at once.

Through a blend of new software, customer interaction, electronics and new thinking, vendors are approaching challenges by looking at the system of utility service in the laboratory.

Ultrapure solutions
Pure lab water supply is among the most important and fastest growing of the laboratory utilities industry. The proliferation of life science research applications has a lot do with this growth, and a recent survey in Laboratory Equipment shows that nearly half of researchers who use lab water plan to make a purchase of a new system, or systems, within the next year.

These new acquisitions are not necessarily the result of inadequacies of prior lab water solutions, which by nature tend to be highly accessible and easy-to-use, whether installed as benchtop supply or centralized distribution.

Rather, the increasing number of applications that require Type I, or ultrapure, research-grade water is growing quickly. Elga LabWater, Wood Ridge, Ill., which manufacturers a comprehensive line of lab water supply equipment, has observed significant growth in this area, particularly in molecular life science and environmental areas.

Two recent customers include an Italian research consortium doing work in Antarctica and the Molelcular Genetics Laboratory at MGL at Sheffield Children’s Hospital, U.K. These customers, according to Elga LabWater, highlight the different research applications that need ultrapure water solutions.

Like so many research facilities engaged in genomics and proteomics research, the work at MGL involves a tremendous volume of samples, each of which are examined using highly sensitive instrumentation. They rely on two Elga products. The Option R7 provides up to 7.5 L of Type II water per day. Type II offers better purity than double-distilled water and helps in the laboratory clean up after the use of acid and silver staining, which can leave behind unwanted ions. The PURELAB UHQ, which provides up to 0.75 L/min of Type I (5 to 10 L/day), was needed to supply Type I water for a capillary-type DNA sequencing system. Growing water usage meant an eventual upgrade to an Option R15 system, which doubled Type II output.

In Antarctica, the CNR Institute for the Dynamics of Environmental Processes (CNR-IDPA) and the Dept. of Environmental Sciences, Informatics and Statistics, Univ. Ca’ Foscari in Venice, Italy, specialize in the analysis of ultra-trace levels of substances in environmental matrices. Their need: All polyethylene and Teflon sample bottles used for analysis in their research in Antarctica had to go through a stringent cleaning protocol over a period of several weeks to ensure a contaminant-free receptacle. A PURELAB Option-Q coupled to a PURELAB Ultra Analytic provide the volume and purity needed to keep this material completely free of contaminants that might ruin the research results.

According to Matt Boeck, product manager for the research market at Elga LabWater Global Operations, Elga’s new PURELAB Chorus was developed in part to meet the needs of this type of customer, which requires multiple types of easily accessible lab water—most of it high-purity—to accommodate rapidly evolving science.

Launched at Pittcon 2014 in Chicago in March, the system is designed to allow customers to assemble a bespoke system, optimized to the exact requirements of their laboratory. Ranging from the Chorus 1 for ultrapure Type I+/I to the Chorus 3 for Type III general pure-grade water, the new line differs from prior solutions in the areas of customization and communication. In addition to water quality, which is delivered through integrated pulse, PureSure deionization technology and 254-nm ultraviolet light treatment, a built-in electronic cartridge identification tool helps provide traceability of purification packs for GLP purposes.

To better inform the user about the function of the system, Elga has designed Chorus to utilize its Halo Dispense solutions. These include a fixed-position dispenser and a handheld dispenser. An advanced version of the fixed dispenser offers a clear water purity readout and a color-coded “Halo” glows to alert the user of changes in system status. The dispensing itself is controllable and can be variable and automated. Finally, data can be captured via USB for system performance validation.

Customization is extended through the availabile 15- to 60-L storage reservoirs, but Elga also provides a strategic planning service that helps a laboratory determine the needs for a particular laboratory, whether it's an analytical facility using HPLC or a biotechnology laboratory using gel preparation and DNA or cell analysis.

An all-in-one solution to lab water, the PURELAB Chorus is geared toward flexibility, fulfilling applications ranging from ultrapure supply for sophisticated analyses to glassware washing. Image: Elga LabWaterThe process approach to gas supply
Several types of gases are used frequently enough to require centralized, point-source supply, especially for wet laboratory spaces. Vacuum and pneumatic supplies are also common and may be point-source or centralized.

When equipping a new laboratory with a gas supply, the primary question is: What’s the outer limit of the research activities? Without a clear idea of what tasks will be performed, the laboratory operator is at risk of having too little capacity when needed, or wasting money on overbuilt, oversupplied systems.

This is why gas supply companies often advocate for early involvement in the laboratory outfitting process. By lending their experience early in the process, gas suppliers can educate architectural and engineering (A&E) firms. By comparing the installations with prior projects, suppliers can make recommendations, such as whether to pursue point-source solutions, before the plans go to the architect.

The gas suppliers can also work with the laboratory planner to seamlessly integrate laboratory solutions.

Airgas, Radnor, Pa., sponsors lunch-and-learn sessions with these A&E companies. These sessions are useful reminders about the importance of a safely designed system, the costly consequences in an error of control or gas management and the options available for guaranteeing proper purity.

At these sessions, Airgas engineers often share stories about buildings that have been installed without the proper optimization, leading to some costly errors. At a bioscience facility, for example, failure of a simple cyrogenic control valve during off hours can render tens of thousands of dollars worth of RNA samples completely useless.

At Pittcon 2014, Airgas released a guide to gas delivery geared specifically to users of highly sensitive scientific equipment. Called the “The Chromatographer’s Guide to Gas and Gas Delivery Systems”, the guide offers detailed information on how to build and maintain gas supply systems for gas chromatography. Proper component selection can ensure process accuracy, extend component life and create necessary consistencies.

In addition to education, Airgas provides a service called Outlook that helps synchronize efforts to reduce cylinder balances, gas consumption, gas-related incidents and time-consuming paperwork that goes with procuring gases, welding and safety products. According to the company, this has saved customers more than $11 million in the past 20 years. The service also helps customers identify trends in their gas usage and pinpoints issues in supply, purity and safety.

At Matheson, Basking Ridge, N.J., the approach to assisting laboratories with upgrades or changes to their supply is to treat each customer as a special, custom case. Every user’s needs are different. However, small upgrades are the norm; and one of the most common today is the adoption of a modern single-body switchover regulator that reduces the number of leak points and protects against system failure in the event of a power outage.

Other common cases include increased hydrogen use, necessitating the addition of a proton exchange membrane generator, which Matheson installs. Others need to upgrade from older forged regulators to achieve higher purity levels for their instrumentation.

Like Airgas, Matheson favors working closely with A&E firms during the laboratory design process. In addition to consultation, 3-D modeling capabilities are well established, and in-house designers can contribute when an installation becomes large or complicated. Typically, the need for Matheson’s services depends largely on how many instruments the laboratory operators will supply. This will dictate the variety and quantity of the supplied gases, whether a bulk supply source is needed and whether high-flow switchovers will be utilized.

“We have a dedicated program for this type of application. We like to work with the A&E firms and we’ll inform them about the different kinds of equipment that are available and provide our contacts so they can reach us with questions about design,” says Ron Geib, product and technology marketing manager, Chemical and Specialty Gas Group, Matheson.

In the early days, says Geib, Matheson’s engineers would frequently deal directly with individual researchers to arrive at solutions. Now, contractors are in place to work with Matheson, and selecting the right size equipment to match with pressures and flow rates that might change is a challenge. In the past year, Matheson has formalized a lot of the information that was being distributed to A&E firms in an effort to simplify the process for them.

Streamlined service is a priority for Matheson, but product development is also a continuous process. Later this year, says Geib, the company plans to introduce a new set of technologies that will allow people to track gas pressures and gas usage automatically, and gather that information in a centralized place.

The 544 Series IntelliSwitch IIv gas distribution and management system from CONCOA automatically switches between high-pressure flow gases.Gas control now welcomes strategic approaches
This holistic approach to gas supply installation isn’t limited to the three parties mentioned above. An entire suite of equipment is required to effectively run a research laboratory, and manufacturers of fittings, valves and other flow control solutions often become involved early in the process to help planners and researchers understand the options available.

CONCOA, Virginia Beach, Virg., a maker of gas control equipment, offers a comprehensive program called the Custom Assembly Program. When a customer contacts CONCOA, an applications engineer uses the initial discussion to begin preparing a drawing and quotation including lead time for review and approval. This custom project becomes its own “part number”, and the customer can order it directly from the company. Leveraging the company’s catalog selection of regulators, valves, adaptors and meters, the engineer then designs and produces a fully assembled solution to a given application. The system is fully tested for leak integrity and functionality, and the service conforms to an ISO 9001-certified process to ensure quality.

This type of service is helpful, in part, because the selection of gas supply components is so diverse. Regulators are one of the most important components of the gas supply infrastructure, and a company such as CONCOA can supply hundreds of varieties of regulators: single stage, dual stage, brass, aluminum, stainless steel and more.

This type of service is helpful, in part, because the selection of gas supply components is so diverse. Regulators are one of the most important components of the gas supply infrastructure, and a company such as CONCOA can supply hundreds of varieties of regulators: single stage, dual stage, brass, aluminum, stainless steel and more.

Another factor affecting gas supply and control strategies is the increasing role of automation and computerized controls. CONCOA launched their IntelliSwitch technology more than a decade ago to help gas customers, particularly those using cryogenic supplies, manage the necessary switch between two sources of gas. Projects involving high-pressure gases in cryogenic liquid cylinders, high-pressure cylinder banks, tube trailers, generators, compressors or bulk gas sources can benefit from automated control because gas utility extends far outside normal working hours.

Essentially an electronic control device for the gas regulator, the IntelliSwitch actuates as inlet pressure falls below a user-defined point by means of a Web interface or a serial port. At Pittcon 2014, CONCOA introduced its 544 Series IntelliSwitch IIv, which utilizes new proprietary economization software that virtually eliminates liquid cylinder vent loss and substantially reduces residual return. IntelliSwitch has evolved to serve as a highly reliable switch for demanding applications and environments that require continuous supply. The system integrates with CONCOA’s gas alarm systems, and is compatible with all inert non-flammable gases up to 4,500 psig. According to CONCOA Product Manager Larry Gallagher, the system can save up to 40% over analog valves for gas supply controlled with IntelliSwitch II. He says his sales team can help customers gauge this savings directly based on their installation. This helps justify the cost of upgrading from traditional valves.

The other advantage of electronic control, and one that is beginning to impact the vacuum pump industry, is the availability of network control. A simple smartphone interface can provide rapid status monitoring of the valve and gas supply, and a laptop can provide minute control. But the biggest reason that more precise control of gases, particularly inert gases, will be the norm is the availability of helium. Companies such as Edwards, Sanborn, N.Y., Oerlikon Leybold, Expor, Pa., and Pfeiffer, Nashua, N.H., have all invested in improving electronic controls so users can monitor their equipment continuously, or even outside the laboratory.

Helium is used as a test gas because it’s chemically inert, easy to detect and has the ability to pass through the smallest leak. It’s popular. But it’s also in short supply. While enough helium to last 100 years is available at current usage rates, recent supply shortfalls have caused a minor panic in the scientific world, where no good alternative for helium has existed prior to recent efforts to utilize hydrogen as a substitute.

Companies like CONCOA are intensely involved with testing for helium leaks, and electronic switching control is a key part of the effort to control the loss, which can be substantial.

Some vendors have concentrated their efforts on purity through an extensive redesign of both the cylinder and valve. Air Products, Dublin, Ireland, introduced its Built-In Purifier (BIP) about a decade ago, helping achieve impurity levels as low as 10 ppb for hydrocarbons and oxygen, and 20 ppb for moisture. A gas supply company, Air Products’ BIP saves carrier gas for chromatography users through the implementation of a specialized valve design. A check valve protects both the purifier and the cylinder interior from any gas present at the valve outlet at a pressure higher than cylinder pressure. This check valve also functions as a residual pressure valve and closes when the cylinder pressure drops to about 50 psig, maintaining a positive pressure in the cylinder at all times. The result is a cylinder that can't be completely emptied with an interior that can’t be accidentally exposed to atmospheric oxygen or water.

Ceiling-mounted laboratory filtration units from Air Science, called Purair SKY, are equipped with an electrostatic pre-filter in addition to the Multiplex Filtration System.Overhead gets a dose of sophistication
Ceiling-mounted high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters are a common presence in research laboratories and cleanrooms. Designed to be capable of high-flow air exchange, they’re typically hidden away behind ceiling vents and are used to help filter the incoming air as an extra aid for the HVAC system and a supplement to air-handling systems present on the laboratory floor. Several large-capacity HEPA filters may be present in a wet chemistry laboratory where many fume hoods are in use. Manufactured by a variety of companies, these filters are often combined with fluorescent lighting to provide a single plug-in block.

This has been the standard for research laboratories for decades. Now, two makers of ductless and ductless filtering fume hoods have recently introduced more advanced solutions for laboratory air handling.

At Pittcon 2014, France-based Erlab, already known for its GreenFumeHood line of ductless fume hoods, introduced Halo, a standalone, ceiling-mounted air filtration system for the laboratory that permits safe reduction of air change rates while improving air quality through its use of carbon filter technology.

Halo gets its name from a ring of glowing light that signifies both its presence and operational status. Occupying a similar footprint as the traditional HEPA filter, the Halo is more complex, utilizing the same Neutrodine filters found in GreenFumeHood products to give it the ability to capture a range of commonly used acids, bases and solvents.

The available fan module gives Halo the ability to move 135 to 220 cfm of air during several operating modes, which can be preprogrammed. This amounts to two to four equivalent air change rates. The unit monitors airflow and uses the light-emitting diode (LED) “halo” to communicate its operating status. Leveraging the built-in electronics, Erlab has designed a semiconductor-based sensor to allow Halo to detect volatile organic compounds. Recognizing that Halo units would likely be installed in large numbers, Erlab also designed a communications system to allow users to sense any issues for occupants, and equipped the module with its e-Guard communication system. BacNet protocols relay information through an Ethernet service, giving users the ability to conduct routine maintenance or status checks via smartphone, tablet or computer.

Erlab isn’t the only company to offer a new take on overhead filtration. Air Science, Fort Myers, Fla., has also recently introduced its Purair SKY ceiling-mounted filtration unit. Equipped with LED lighting and a filtration chamber, the SKY utilizes much of the same filtration technology used by Air Science on its line of conventional ductless filtering hoods and enclosure products. The Air Science Multiplex Filtration System, as it’s called, has a pre-filter, main filter and optional safety filter to create a customizable “sandwich” architecture that blocks contaminated air in a way that matches the type of application being used in the environment. The filters, accessible through a clamping mechanism, rely on an activated carbon particle formulation engineered for porosity and surface area and can sense acids, bases and biological aerosols when paired with HEPA or ULPA filters.

How these new systems will affect the long-term operational efficiency of a laboratory remains to be seen, although Erlab claims the Halo system will be a low-maintenance device. Most laboratories, the company says, may not need a replacement filter for two years or more. Both have been just released and will require time to find adoption in the marketplace.

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