Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

In the Mix

No matter what field you serve, your role as a modern laboratory manager requires an intimate understanding of how safety, productivity, and sustainability work together to determine the success of your entire operation in achieving accurate results and containing costs. It’s no surprise that one of the biggest challenges of running a successful lab operation is meeting all these expectations without sacrificing any one of them.

by Steven Daley
Register for free to listen to this article
Listen with Speechify

in the mix

Best Practices for Chemical Purchasing

One effective way to find that balance is to start with your chemicals and focus on using smart chemical purchasing methods. By knowing precisely what chemicals you need and also taking into consideration other chemical purchasing factors such as product size, packaging, container criteria, and supplier support, you can make informed decisions that will help you meet all your laboratory’s goals.

More than a catalog list

The first best practice in chemical purchasing is perhaps the most important—choosing the right supplier. Improving laboratory safety and productivity while producing dependable results, all in a sustainable work environment, begins by identifying your laboratory’s chemical needs—a step that should be done in partnership with an expert supplier. Experienced lab managers know there is more to purchasing chemicals than looking at processes and applications and then flipping through a catalog to see what fits. Proper inventory management is key, which means buying only what is needed, when it’s needed, and in the right volume, grade, and package. While it may seem elementary, a dependable chemical supplier is a vital contributor to these decisions and can help make the purchasing effort more efficient.

Get training in Chemical Hygiene and earn CEUs.One of over 25 IACET-accredited courses in the Academy.
Chemical Hygiene Course

An effective chemical supplier will partner with you to evaluate all your chemical-related lab processes, applications, and product needs. They will assist with gathering application information, product numbers, chemical grades, and package sizes so your chemical selection can be optimized for each application. Good supply partners know that these important considerations in chemical selection also affect other facets of lab management, including productivity, safety, and sustainability. So make sure your supplier is doing more than just delivering chemicals; a good supply partner should also support your best practices and laboratory management initiatives.

Be smart about buying in bulk

Buying in bulk can provide many advantages, including less frequent refill change-outs and fewer opportunities for subsequent chemical spills, which translate into a safer, more efficient laboratory environment. Buying in bulk can also mean fewer shipping costs and less packaging disposal, which contribute to sustainability goals.

Reusable containers can provide a sustainable alternative to disposable bottles, single-use containers and one-way drums, and can reduce chemical waste and disposal costs for frequently used chemicals.While bulk purchasing may be an effective way to manage supply and control costs, more isn’t always better, so an important best practice is to calculate all the benefits and possible risks of bulk purchasing, not just the up-front cost-per-unit savings. Overbuying may be less expensive in the context of cost per volume, but it can also lead to wasted chemicals that expire before they are disbursed and result in costly disposal.

For instance, some labs may purchase bulk one-way chemical drums and pump the contents into smaller containers in an effort to reduce costs; however, the integrity of the chemical may be compromised in the dispensing process if it goes into an unclean container, or the lab may end up discarding unused chemicals (with disposal costs) due to degradation or extended exposure to the environment. The large size of the drums also increase the total volume of chemicals in a facility, which means they can become a storage and safety issue if not consumed in a reasonable amount of time.

While the cost per unit may be lower, the use of bulk containers may present additional risks in the lab. For example, a product such as an ACS-grade solvent in a 20-liter container may be difficult for lab personnel to handle due to its size, shape, and weight. In this case, dispensing and handling larger quantities of solvent could lead to a hazardous situation, so it makes sense to order smaller, more manageablesized bottles to ensure safety while also getting results.

For other applications, a bulk purchase may simply be overkill and smaller batches may better match the workflow. For example, many salts used in laboratory analysis are critical to ensure reliable results, but they are consumed in smaller quantities. While purchasing salts in larger bulk sizes may reduce the cost per gram, it also increases the potential for contamination, clumping and degradation of the product. Conversely, purchasing salts in smaller bottles can ensure your product remains fresh, while reducing or preventing the potential waste of product that has expired or becomes clumped or contaminated.

The key is to evaluate your situation carefully and be cautious about overbuying. Instead, consider purchasing chemicals in smaller quantities when applicable so that no product goes to waste.

Nothing more, nothing less

Purchasing chemicals should be like going to the grocery store with a meal plan and a shopping list. You get exactly the ingredients you need, it takes you less time to move through the store, and you don’t have to throw anything away at the end of the week. This best practice at home also translates into a best practice in the lab.

For some laboratories, purchasing and using pre-blended chemicals can be an ingredient for saving time and allowing better allocation of laboratory staff, which can impact the total lab operational budget. Purchasing pre-blends can also reduce inventory and conserve storage space, while limiting waste from inaccurate mixing or spillage.

One common pre-blended solvent used by quality control labs is Acetonitrile-0.1% trifluoroacetic acid. In this lab environment, preblended solvents for use in liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry can save preparatory staff up to 30 minutes—time that would otherwise be spent preparing the mobile phase. For an application such as high-performance liquid chromatography, there is no need for lab staff to blend on-site. In fact, pre-blended solvents remove the opportunity for human error and the safety risks of handling chemicals, while also ensuring the quality of the end results.

Lab managers can also save costs by matching the quality of the chemistry to the application at hand. For example, some general processes, such as sample prep and sample analysis, can benefit from the use of universal reagents, which can sometimes be substituted for individual technical and reagent-grade chemicals, such as acids, salts, and solvents. Universal reagents can reduce inventory by reducing the number of products needed, thereby conserving space and limiting packaging disposal.

Likewise, using volumetric solution concentrates for analytical processes, such as titrations or dissolution media concentrates for tablet testing, can also help reduce waste and streamline operations by eliminating the need to store and combine multiple component chemicals on-site.

For more stringent processes, talk with your supplier about application-optimized chemicals that are specifically developed and engineered for your methodology. Application-optimized chemicals can maximize accuracy and reproducibility, while avoiding inconsistent or substandard results that can lead to wasted material and time for correcting experiments.

Size, space, and safety

The chemical products you purchase have a direct effect on how smoothly your operation flows, the quality of your results, and the waste and disposal of unused portions. In addition to considering the volume or quantity that is needed for a chemical product, another best practice is to consider the physical size of the product packaging, as the space occupied by your chemical inventory is in many ways just as important in the purchasing process.

Purchasing pre-blended solvents can save valuable staff time for higher-value tasks, while also removing the opportunity for human error and the additional safety risk of handling chemicals.One benefit of matching the volume of chemical products to your exact need is that you can better control the amount of space required for storage. For instance, the size of the product packaging has a direct impact on the ease of movement by your personnel around the laboratory. Storing unnecessarily large quantities can hamper the flow of activity in the laboratory and in some cases even cause trip hazards and other safety risks. By contrast, proper product sizing also limits changeouts, reduces the number of open containers, and limits disposal of spoilage and/or excess product—all of which reduce safety risks to personnel.

Packaging and containers

In addition to physical size, other aspects of a product’s packaging or container should be considered as part of your chemical purchasing best practices due to their impact on various aspects of your operation—including product integrity, safe handling, sustainability measures, storage requirements, and disposal costs.

Specialty packaging, for instance, is designed to protect product integrity, which means less waste and more reliable lab results. For example, anhydrous solvents that have septum seal caps allow solvent to be extracted from the bottle using a syringe while protecting the solvent from exposure to the environment.

Recyclable and reusable containers, such as Avantor’s J.T.Baker® CYCLE-TAINER™ solvent delivery system, provide a sustainable alternative to disposable bottles, single-use containers, and one-way drums. These containers are available in a variety of sizes and can reduce chemical waste and disposal costs by preserving product quality. Also, user-friendly designs with features such as easy-to-use dispensing ports can further complement the environmentally conscious aspects of the reusable container by reducing the opportunity for spills and waste.

And finally, purchasing chemicals in poly-coated bottles that are easier to grip and resist shattering in case the bottles get dropped can provide additional safety when handling acids and solvents. These bottles are also designed to contain the chemical for a short period of time if the bottle does break, making it easier to clean up.

Supplier support

Don’t overlook a very important aspect of the relationship with your chemical products supplier—their ability to consistently meet your chemical demands to avoid rush deliveries and the potential for the accompanying unnecessary costs. An unbalanced supply/demand relationship with your supplier can lead to rushed work, mistakes, safety risks, and expensive rework, so make sure your supplier has the global resources to meet your needs, especially in times of local chemical shortages.

Another important aspect of supplier support is electronic documentation, which is essential for a modern laboratory to run safely and efficiently. It is imperative that all labs prepare for GHS labeling requirements that are designed to promote the safety of lab workers. Make sure your supplier can provide excellent electronic documentation to help you comply with these new requirements.

Chemical providers with comprehensive electronic documentation can also help you reduce paper waste and enable faster communication for quick responses to changes in your daily lab needs.

Materials sourcing and electronic catalogs and data sheets are just a few of the common documentation tools provided by suppliers to increase efficiency and streamline laboratory functions. Some chemical suppliers even offer mobile apps that allow smartphones and tablets to instantly access product information. A quick scan of a product bar code, for example, can provide information such as product specifications, certificates of analysis, material safety data sheets, and container and packaging information. In your purchasing practices, consider how each of these tools can support the fast pace and high-productivity environment of a modern lab.

Boiling it down

Purchasing the right chemicals in the right volume, grade, and packaging is a critical first step to any laboratory’s success. However, understanding how these choices affect the broader goals of safety, productivity, and sustainability is best achieved with the help of a dependable supplier. A good supplier will work with you to implement these best practices and optimize the entire ordering process, from selection through delivery. Together, your thoughtful and informed decisions can control costs, ensure quality results, foster safety in the workplace, and reduce waste—all important contributions to realizing your lab management goals.