Glove boxes are specialty enclosures that allow tight control over experimental conditions. Sizes range from less than five to several hundred cubic feet. Glove boxes are unique among lab enclosures. Unlike fume hoods, which are essentially open to the lab environment, or more sophisticated barrier or isolator systems, glove boxes maintain temperature, humidity, and process gas while protecting the experiment from operators, or vice versa, depending on the application. They also allow the introduction or removal of equipment and samples.
Not surprisingly, most glove boxes are found in biology and medical laboratories as well as in many chemistry labs. This is reflected in how glove boxes are used: 41 percent of respondents in a recent Lab Manager Magazine survey indicated that they used glove boxes for materials that were either dangerous or sensitive to air, moisture, or both. Twenty- two percent of respondents used glove boxes for culturing cells or bacteria. Nine percent, each, of applications involved storage of chemicals or working with delicate electronic components (e.g., sensors or microchips).
The largest percentage (61 percent) of labs tend to have one or two glove boxes. The numbers fall off rapidly, but 16 percent of those who responded maintain five or more glove boxes in their facility.
Glove boxes are considered laboratory “furniture” and are expected to have very low operating budgets. More than half of the respondents indicated that they expected to spend “less than $1,000” on annual repair, maintenance, and related supplies. Price was cited as the main factor (44 percent) entering into purchase decisions for a glove box, followed by ease of use (41 percent), safety (33 percent), and low maintenance/operating costs (31 percent).
Inside and outside the box
Kevin Murray, director of sales and marketing at Biospherix (Lacona, NY), notes that within the life sciences, users are beginning to demand that glove boxes support “esoteric” atmospheres; for example, oxygen-free atmospheres for experimenting with tumor cells. Murray calls customers specifying control of hydrogen sulfide, nitric oxide, and ozone “ahead of the curve” in terms of product requirements.
Labs contemplating a glove box purchase for cell cultures should look into designs where incubation and processing are separated in order to prevent contamination. This can be done by providing separate chambers within the box or by locating a stand-alone incubator within the glove box.
Some glove box manufacturers, like MBraun (Stratham, NH), have aggressively sought out markets and applications outside the life sciences. The company has teamed up with Bruker (Billerica, MA), which manufactures high-end analytical instrumentation, on glove box enclosures for Bruker’s atomic force microscopes (AFMs). Bruker now sells turnkey AFM systems that are environmentally controlled—allowing less than one percent of either oxygen or water vapor.
In 2011, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) described an MBraun glove box that was suitable for destructive physical analysis. This particular model featured oxygen and water vapor sensors to maintain levels of these gases at less than 5 ppm. This project is one of several MBraun has placed in the advanced materials market. Earlier, the company had produced a glove box for Cambridge Nanotech (Cambridge, MA) that was specifically designed for atomic layer deposition, which is a technique for forming thin electronic films in inert atmospheres. MBraun has also published on the advantages of glove boxes over “dry rooms” used for the fabrication of lithium-ion batteries. “Glove boxes provide a much cleaner, healthier process where operators are not exposed to the unhealthy working conditions found in most battery production lines,” according to MBraun GmbH Sales Manager Michael Gropper.
Bob Applequist, product manager at Labconco (Kansas City, MO), says that a fair number of purchasers use glove boxes mostly to store radioisotopes, nanomaterials, and other dangerous materials.
They do this to enforce operator safety,he explains. “Managers want to prevent people from removing toxic or radioactive materials nonchalantly, without thinking about it.” Fume hoods are easily opened and expensive to operate. Glove boxes provide protection with minimal venting of conditioned air.
“With a glove box, the material has to go through a transfer chamber.” That, he says, adds a layer of awareness that reinforces safety protocols.
Storage applications also help minimize a certain “ick” factor. Mr. Applequist recalls a government agency that employed a sophisticated glove box to store “crime evidence.” When pressed, he admitted that the stored items were indeed body parts. Another customer, a forensics laboratory, cleaned up human bones inside glove boxes.
Because glove boxes are considered appliances or furniture—they do not, after all, generate data—price is always a critical consideration. A typical stainless-steel box with pressure control, oxygen and moisture removal, and sensors can cost about $30,000. “That’s a chunk of change for most labs,” Mr. Applequist tells Lab Manager Magazine. “Customers have to balance what they want with how much they can spend, just as they do with a fume hood, water purification system, or laboratory casework.”
Yet, as with all lab expenditures, some customers insist on costly features or radical retrofits. “If we don’t get the opportunity to talk with a customer who over-specifies, we have a choice between saying ‘we don’t have it’ or quoting a very high price,” Mr. Applequist explains. Manufacturers specializing in off-the-shelf models can make some improvements, such as adding passthrough fittings and limited electrical upgrades, but customizing physical dimensions is very expensive.
Unusual dimensions or expanded sizes for glove boxes are not a good idea from a practical perspective, either. “Individuals in labs are always fighting for space,” observes Kevin Murray, and optimal—not necessarily the most space-saving or inclusive— design is the way to go. “Small boxes seem ideal from a space perspective because they fit atop a lab bench. But if you suddenly need to bring in thirty plates, media, and pipettors, you’ll run out of room. You have to judge ahead on your space requirement.”
For additional resources on glove boxes, including useful articles and a list of manufacturers, visit www.labmanager.com/glove-boxes