Chemists need to get their own house (or lab cupboard) in order and new electronic inventories are just the ticket

Every home seems to have one – a drawer or cupboard that is filled with odds and ends. Assorted pens, papers and staplers jostle with old camera films, cassette tapes and memory sticks. Chemists are no different. But the legacy of forgotten chemicals can be rather less benign.

It seems that every chemist that has worked in a lab has a hoary old tale of Narnia-esque explorations of the stores pushing past musty lab coats and dusty Winchesters. And in some of the very best stories the intrepid chemist discovers a bottle of something hair-raising at the back of the cupboard. In many cases it’s an ancient bottle of picric acid. Worse still they discover to their horror that tell-tale yellow crystals have formed. Cue a call to the chemical safety office or even the bomb squad.

While these sorts of discoveries make for a good anecdote down the pub after a long day in the lab, they highlight the difficulty and importance of knowing what’s in your stores. This makes the news that some UK chemistry departments are ditching the log books and starting to roll-out electronic tracking systems heartening. Departments in Swansea and UCL have all found that these systems can save thousands of pounds, as well as improve safety and lower labs’ environmental footprints.

The idea is simple. Each chemical in the store should have its own unique identifier that is logged in the system. Anyone taking a bottle out of stores must scan their card or provide some other kind of identifier. As well as tracking who has a reagent, these systems have the added advantage that they can be linked into purchasing to prevent duplicate orders and even prevent personnel from booking out a chemical that they haven’t been trained how to handle. Another advantage of these electronic inventories is that in the event of a fire or other emergency the department head can even tell the emergency services exactly what they can expect to find in each store. 

Chemistry is often hailed as the science that will make the biggest contribution to tackling the world’s largest problems. The discipline and its associated industry hold the key to cutting global energy use and making best use of scarce resources. What kind of example are we setting if we have trouble controlling wasteful behaviour in labs? Perhaps it’s time to get our own house (or cupboard) in order.

Patrick Walter, News editor