Inventories of the chemical variety

I’ve been thinking a lot about chemical inventory systems recently.  Derek’s post yesterday made for an interesting read, especially the comments section.

Over the years I’ve seen most combinations of storage systems described there.  But what I’m much more interested in now is the software (or lack thereof) which runs these systems.  There’s no shortage of LIMS vendors out there.  There are even some free app-based inventory management solutions that I’ve played with (see Quartzy), which may work well for a small academic lab but lack functionality required by a modest sized company.

There’s a constant struggle, as others have pointed out, with compliance in any inventory management system.  The more work you require of a scientist to use the system, the more likely they are to ignore it entirely.  Barcoding, or more recently RFID tagging, attempt to alleviate some of the burden with logging and tracking materials.

But these attempts to automate inventory management all seem to suffer from what I’ll dub the problem of granularity.  The granularity problem is simply that for an inventory management system to be useful*, it must be sufficiently granular to describe the location of a material with both precision and accuracy.  In other words, a system which correctly identifies the location of a bottle of pyridine as “Chemistry lab 1,” is not precise enough to be useful.  Similarly, a full site map placing that bottle of pyridine in Bin 1, on Shelf 2, in Flammable Cabinet A, in Chemistry lab 1 is only useful if John Smith hasn’t used the last of it and forgot to remove the container from the inventory.

One might envision a system in which each storage location is fitted with an RFID reader, and each reagent bottle tagged with chip (which cost less than a quarter each now).  This system would be able to identify where exactly each reagent is simultaneously, provided it’s within range of an RFID reader.

And indeed, it seems like something like this has been done at least once.  The issue I envision with such a set up is one of granularity — you can’t practically put a reader in each bin on each shelf of each cabinet in your entire facility.  That being said, such a system would probably be able to distinguish whether or not a particular reagent is in the proper flammable cabinet, or if John Smith moved it to his fume hood.

My searching hasn’t uncovered any turnkey solutions involving RFID chemical tracking — but it must be possible if not feasible.  After all, manufacturing operations and logistics companies have been employing this sort of technology for years.

Readers, what’s the best inventory system you’ve seen employed?  Have you ever seen a system that manages to solve both the granularity problem and the compliance problem simultaneously?


*There are inventory management systems that are not useful, and serve simply to allow administration to be in regulatory compliance.

Non-“Breaking Bad” methamphetamine

Oh dear.  Well, It didn’t think I’d have cause to write about methamphetamine production again, but here we are.  Many readers will have heard news about the explosion that rocked the NIST lab near Washington, D.C. back in July.  Luckily, no one was seriously injured; but one security guard did sustain some burns.

No more than a couple days later, initial investigations revealed the cause of the explosion appeared to be… methamphetamine synthesis.  Now, any competent chemist in a national lab would (hopefully) be able to perform any of the common meth syntheses without incident.  Certainly without blowing the windows out of the building and hospitalizing his or herself.

But as it turns out, the culprit wasn’t a chemist, but the security guard injured in the blast.  More details have been emerging since the incident.  After resigning from the force, the guard in question pled guilty to attempted methamphetamine manufacture.

It turns out the method the guard was attempting to employ is that known colloquially as the “Shake and Bake” method.  This involves reduction of pseudoephedrine to methamphetamine, then treatment of the reaction mixture with hydrochloric acid, forming a salt which is easily separated.  And in true MacGyver style, the reagents used in this reduction are all improvised: camping stove fuel as a solvent, lithium from batteries, lye, and ammonium nitrate (fertilizer).  HCl is generated by the action of sulfuric acid (sold as drain cleaner) on table salt.  Literally everything you need can be purchased at Wal-Mart.

And what do we do with these reagents?  Why, toss them in a water bottle, close the cap, and shake, of course.  You can’t hear it, but I’m actually screaming behind my keyboard.

The idea is you vent the bottle, as a good amount of gas is going to come off of that particular reaction.  The reason people use this method to make meth, aside from easy access to the starting materials, is that it can be done on a very small scale: a few grams.

What I don’t understand is why, if you’re going to illicitly make methamphetamine in a synthetic chemistry lab, you decide to bypass all those fancy solvents, reagents, glassware, and safety equipment.  Maybe they were worried someone was taking inventory of the reagents they’d need?  In my experience, it’s highly unlikely anyone was.

Instead of doing some homework and using the lab equipment that was already right there, they opted to go straight to the basement-bottom chemistry.

And again, I can only speculate as to exactly what caused the explosion (chemists: take your pick of things that could go wrong with that procedure), but I’d put money on overpressure in the “reaction vessel,” resulting in rupture, and exposure of lithium to air.  That would likely generate enough heat to ignite the expanding camp-fuel-solvent cloud.  And ka-boom.

I’ll take “Syntheses I won’t attempt” for 500, Alex.


Bhopal, Thirty Years Later

Thirty years ago today, the worst industrial accident in history occurred in the Bhopal region of India.  Thousands died overnight, and several times more eventually succumbed to complications of methyl isocyanate poisoning.  The Washington Post has a reflective photo essay on the incident, showing the city thirty years later.  A number of affects linger in the region, ranging from high neonatal mortality, higher incidents of cancer, and chronic respiratory issues.

Remember, when things do go wrong, they can do so disastrously.  Chemistry can be dangerous.  Let this accident serve as a reminder to exercise caution and do your due diligence.  In light of a couple other recent (and not so recent) chemical accidents, I’m putting together a more comprehensive post on the subject of chemical safety.