New technologies and changing attitudes about effective, efficient research impact the way laboratories are equipped.


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Outfitting an electron microscopy laboratory is a challenge, and a delicate balance of performance and usability must be maintained. For its new facility, Arizona State University researchers sought outfitting advice from its designer, Abbie Gregg Inc., and its instrument vendors, including JEOL. Image: Arizona State University   

Compared to most types of industrial construction, research laboratories are expensive. Even the most basic laboratories cost about $350 per gross square foot. High-end instrumentation spaces and cleanroom facilities can elevate that to $600 per gross square foot or more. Part of the reason for this is the value of research results. Owners can't afford to compromise the efforts of researchers by overlooking key components of the laboratory workspace. Architects and designers have developed extensive portfolios of computer models and pre-existing layouts to aid the process; but they must also be mindful of the constant innovation and product development by laboratory equipment manufacturers and utilities suppliers. Their efforts can often facilitate a much more efficient and economical workspace at no cost to research results.

R&D Magazine recently spoke to experts connected to laboratory construction projects and products to identify some trends, tips, and pitfalls encountered by outfitters of new or renovated laboratories. Their stories paint a picture of a rapidly changing laboratory landscape, where demand for high levels of performance and efficiency usher a wave of laboratory innovations.

The reconfigurable laboratory
David Withee's first encounter with a high-throughput reconfigurable laboratory was in 2002, when the Bayer High Technology Center in West Haven, Conn., won a Special Mention in R&D Magazine's Lab of the Year competition.

"As I recall, they reconfigured that laboratory nine times in the first year without needing the involvement of facilities people," says Withee. "That was a tremendous savings, because the value of the laboratory was in the machines and the people."

The concept of a reconfigurable laboratory, says Withee, while relatively new at that time, continued to develop and eventually was driven by researchers. In turn, researchers communicated with vendors who were prompted to make changes or new offerings in their product lines.

Withee, who helped design many reconfigurable laboratories while with the laboratory casework provider Diversified Woodcrafts, is now a sales manager for BROEN A/S, a laboratory flow solutions company based in Assens, Denmark. Yet, his priorities still include educating clients about the concept of the "dancefloor", or reconfigurable laboratory. He started his career at Hamilton in 1994, and says he remembers a progress report which talked about how laboratories do not need casework as much as they need movable support mechanisms or equipment. The ideal configuration would include the ability to move or hide casework when not needed or in use.

"At the time, many people said this concept was crazy," says Withee.

Flexibility in laboratory casework carries over to research activity. Increasingly, laboratories are asked to accommodate research activity that spans a wide range. Abbie Gregg, CEO of the laboratory planning, design, and service firm Abbie Gregg Inc. (AGI), Tempe, Ariz., calls this pattern a major trend in laboratory usage.

"Increasingly, scientists in inorganic and organic research departments want to collaborate. Engineers are working with non-engineers. There's no such thing as a standalone chemistry laboratory anymore, which means that very traditional older laboratory buildings are no longer meeting the needs of researchers," says Gregg.

A noticeable change in fit-out architecture that has accompanied the flexible laboratory concept is the move to ceiling-mounted drop-down connections. This approach, which Withee says took hold in Europe before becoming popular in the U.S., helped facilitate the modular, "dancefloor" layout. Increasingly, electricity, gas supply, water supply, and even wastewater removal are distributed from ceiling-mounted fittings. Laboratory planners now commonly consider this layout for most research spaces, and in many instances have eliminated ceilings altogether to give researchers better access to the overhead infrastructure. Gregg reports that about 50% of new laboratory owners want to see exposed utilities on the ceiling.

Rethinking laboratory gas and water supply
Gas cylinders strapped to the side of a desk was once a familiar sight in research laboratories; and for decades researchers were accustomed to meeting the gas delivery truck at the loading dock to retrieve heavy and bulky dewars. Today, gas supply has become increasingly hands-off for researchers, and it's a trend that suppliers like Airgas, Radnor, Pa., is encouraging. "Anybody that runs a laboratory understands how valuable space is. The last thing you want to do is take up valuable space with a cylinder or dewar. If you can take high-pressure cylinders out of a laboratory, you reduce the risk of gas leakage and asphyxiation in a confined space," says Todd Morris, Airgas vice president, university and laboratory markets. Valuable employees can also hurt themselves or damage walls and equipment when handling the cylinders.

This trend extends to laboratory fit-out strategies. For many years, Airgas has been making a concerted effort to work more closely with A&E firms to better integrate gas supply solutions.


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Various electrical requirements can prevent efficient use of benchtop space in the laboratory. The Plug-In Raceway product from Starline allows researchers and technicians to move outlets and receptacles as needed without requiring infrastructure changes. Image: Starline   

"Gas systems themselves are not the most expensive portion of the laboratory. When you compare that to other aspects of the facility, it's pretty low on the totem pole," says Morris. But if not done correctly, he continues, a building can't be designed as intended and can run afoul of safety codes. Other problems, such as inconsistent supply of the desired gas purity, can arise. The company recently published a 300-page A&E guide that gives designers formal access to drawings and specifications so that gas supply needs are not overlooked in the design phase.

Water supply is another crucial aspect of the laboratory fit-out process; and providers of laboratory water solutions have recently modified their product lines to better suit rapidly changing laboratory designs. ELGA LabWater, Woodridge, Ill., has launched a new line of centralized supply infrastructure, called CENTRA, intended to bridge a gap in product offerings.

Much of ELGA's business is the direct supply of standalone, point-of-use units, but the company is actively involved in many large fit-out projects that include ELGA equipment. The company first assesses the customer's needs, designs a suitable system for producing the correct grade of ultrapure water, and then works with utilities to make sure the feed water requirements are adequate.

ELGA's CENTRA line of water purification systems was intended to provide better flexibility for large laboratories or laboratory suite installations. Water is provided at different levels of purity, according to the user's preference, and then further conditioned at the point of use. The water can be ultrapure, which is suitable for the most demanding applications, or of a lower purity, either type 2 for general laboratory or reverse osmosis permeate, which can then be purified locally with a point-of-use polisher.

"Each site is different but, as is clear, the advantages of such an approach lie in flexibility and local control, monitoring, and validation, and we would often recommend it. A central system may be advantageous where there is one very high-volume user, such as a production area and the laboratories are ancillary to this," says Julian Purcell, director of operation and service, ELGA LabWater.

Fittings, fixtures, and connections
Design innovations have also affected basic laboratory elements, such as eyewash stations. These stations are typically placed at a sink, a place where anyone familiar with the room will naturally turn to in such an emergency. Several "faucet-mount" products that add eyewash heads onto existing faucets have been offered. However, they could present safety hazards involving delays in activation and the danger of scalding water being delivered to the eyes.

Emergency treatment for chemical exposure is to flush eyes immediately and extensively with either water or a prepared eye-flushing solution. The ANSI standard requires that eyewashes be able to deliver 15 minutes of continual flushing to both eyes simultaneously at minimum 0.4 gpm. It also specifies tepid water between 60 F and 100 F and requires eyewash stations to be located within ten seconds' travel time. According to Imants Stiebris and Steven Miller of Speakman Company, Newcastle, Del., real-world eyewash installations often fall short of these safety goals.

"In many labs, the eyewash station is not well-located, not well-marked, and difficult to find," says Stiebris director of global safety sales at Speakman. "Moreover, a free-standing station requires a bucket (and probably additional cleanup) for weekly testing, which may deter testing from actually being performed as often as required."

Speakman's solution, offered in the SEF 1850 Eyesaver series, is an ANSI-approved improvement over add-on devices. These are standard laboratory faucets with built-in, independently operating eyewash stations. They have the virtues of faucet-mount add-ons and they use a standard plumbing supply, but eyewash function is controlled without use of the faucet valves. Instead, a single pull on a dedicated, well-marked lever activates a mix of normal hot and cold water supply.

Laboratory power can also benefit from innovative solutions. Starline, Canonsburg, Pa., a maker of power distribution and management solutions for laboratory spaces, has replaced traditional wire and conduit runs with unique copper bus bars that are pre-installed into the raceway sections. This design allows users to simply snap any number of pre-assembled plug-in modules into place on the raceway backplane for an instant connection. Unlike some designs, these new Plug-In Raceway solutions connect automatically without having to interrupt power. With the ability to add or relocate plug-in modules anywhere on the raceway, the system accommodates three-phase 120/208 VAC or 277/480 VAC power delivery.

According to Mark Swift, Starline's business development manager, the system is "ideal for a number of applications, like laboratories or higher education facilities, that can really benefit from the ability to essentially customize power as needed."

Plug-In Raceway systems allow end-users to avoid large panel boards and eliminate the confusion of determining what breaker corresponds to which outlets.

Vacuum supply sees a move to dry
Another less obvious component to the laboratory fit-out process is vacuum supply. While not typically part of a laboratory's internal infrastructure, vacuum pumps are a key tool for conditioning or utilizing laboratory gas and chemicals. A supporting technology for OEM instrumentation, such as electron microscopes and mass spectrometers, they are also a key component in materials analysis and production, biotechnology R&D, and energy research. At Edwards Vacuum, Sanborn, N.Y., the research market is split between OEM customers and standalone equipment supply. The workhorse product for most laboratories is the rotary vane pump, which recently saw a major shift as new laboratory construction and expansion projects seek a newer type of pump.

"We've seen a gradual progression from the oil-sealed rotary vane pump to a dry pump," says David Steele, market sector manager, Edwards Vacuum. In recent years, dry pumps have achieved the performance levels of oil-sealed pumps, but without the headaches of maintenance and oil disposal. "They also tend to be quieter, use less power, and generate less heat," he says.

Also, according to Steele, mass spectrometry users can see the hydrocarbon background introduced by the oil in the vacuum pump. Dry pumps avoid this contamination of results. They can also perform some laboratory functions, such as freeze drying or gel drying, more quickly. Although dry pumps cost more to buy, Steele says the 20% reduction in electricity use pays for itself in a short time.


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The SEF-1850 from Speakman Company is a new safety solution for laboratories that lack ANSI-approved access to tepid-water eyewash stations. An independent plumbing supply to the eyewash function operates from its own activator handle without use of the faucet valves. This helps prevent scalding water from reaching the eyes. Image: Speakman Company   

"We've had customers who have added up all the costs of maintenance and energy use and have calculated that it takes under two years to recover the costs," he says. For a laboratory using one or two pumps, this type of switch might not make sense. But for a laboratory with dozens of pumps, it's a move worth considering.

"It's a double advantage in a laboratory with a controlled air environment that's dehumidified and heated. This environment must remain consistent, and if the laboratory can reduce the external sources of heat load, this reduces the amount of cooling required," says Steele.

A typical rotary vane pump is air-cooled and generates 750 W of power, a major portion of which is converted to heat and dispersed in the room. A 20% reduction in heat output can significantly assist thermal management in a laboratory, especially one that contains a transmission electron microscope.

Modeling facilitates high-end laboratory fit-outs
Not all laboratories can afford to be flexible. Facilities devoted to electron microscopy, for example, are typically built to cater to these highly sensitive instruments that can produce atomic-level resolution. But they need to be isolated from a variety of environmental factors that dictate how the laboratory can be equipped.

The Southwestern Center for Aberration Corrected Electron Microscopy (SW-ACEM) at Arizona State University (ASU) was constructed in 2011 to give researchers the ability to understand the behavior of materials at the atomic level. The building will eventually house four high-end electron microscopes, and presently has two aberration-corrected microscopes—a JEOL and a Nion.

"The main need for this facility was stability. Electron microscopes like these are vulnerable to vibration, acoustic fluctuations, and magnetic field distortions. We also required a high degree of thermal stability," says Jay Carpenter, ASU professor and principal investigator at the new facility.

The location at ASU represented a particular challenge because it was less than a mile from a major airport and would be subject to substantial fluctuations in temperature in the arid climate. Vibration issues were solved by installing a single, 2-million-pound foundation slab reinforced with polymer-coated rebar.

"The mass of the foundation damps mechanical vibration. What does get through is extremely low frequency and can be measured," says Carpenter.

AGI, the firm chosen to design the SW-ACEM project, has accumulated a variety of standard tools that facilitate the design and outfitting of a laboratory of this caliber. The company has assembled room families that describe various types of research facilities. These "families" let designers identify conflicts that can occur when environmental conditions affect instrument performance. The "families" help optimize instrument performance by guiding the design team in positioning a scanning electron microscope next door to a focused-ion beam instrument, for example.

"These rooms are expensive, and for this particular area the users wanted to put a preparation laboratory in the new facility, which reduces the space for instruments. There are a lot of tradeoffs to consider," says Gregg.

The lead time on delivery of the microscopes is several months to a year, similar to the construction time. These schedules must be synchronized. After the designer and owner agree on a layout, AGI can build a utility matrix model, which is a database of different tools that allow the designer to plan accurately for aspects such as heat load, electromagnetic interference, and acoustical vibrations.

"We can predict the impact of EMI from models based on what type of interference will appear. For example, if the wiring for the microscope is a 100A 208 VAC three-phase service, then we can model that and determine the EMI effects on the instrument and how to abate it," says Gregg.

AGI uses Autodesk Revit software to gather these utility matrix models in a full-scale building information management (BIM) model. This model allows the designers to achieve a 3D understanding of how the various integral systems—structural, electrical, water, gas—mesh together.

Constant improvement of these models depends on regular communications with owners, vendors, and suppliers. As vendors begin to work more closely with A&E firms like AGI, the benefits for laboratory owners and researchers will grow.