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Controlling an Experiment's Temperature

From portable and benchtop units to industrial-size devices, here are some guidelines for picking the best bath or chiller for your facility

Mike May, PhD

Temperature is a key variable in many experiments. Often, scientists control temperature by running a process in a bath or chiller. Picking the right bath or chiller for a task gets complicated quickly. The available devices come in many types and sizes, providing various temperature ranges and accuracies.

Before getting into the details, a lab manager should consider some fundamental issues. For example, a bath or chiller should meet current and future applications. Of course, cost always matters. The cheapest unit is probably not the best choice, but the most expensive bath or chiller is not usually required. For any bath or chiller, a reliable manufacturer that provides service is the best option.

Digging into the details

Given that a bath or chiller is used for maintaining a set temperature, that’s a key detail to consider from the start. So, the device’s range must cover the likely temperatures that a lab will use. Sometimes, a bath might not need any temperature control. In other cases, heating or cooling might be required.

Other general features of a bath or chiller should also be considered. One is the size. The intended containers for samples must fit in the selected unit. In addition, samples might require agitation, in which case a bath or chiller that includes motion will be needed.

In the end, the best bath or chiller depends on the task at hand as well as the likely ones ahead.

A unit’s control, analog or digital, might also matter. A digitally-controlled unit offers more features, such as high- and low-temperature cutoffs to protect samples, and is more precise than analog. In some applications, a basic analog bath or chiller might be all that’s needed.

Investigating the options

For many labs, a benchtop bath or chiller works fine. These units save lab floor space and come in versions that can shake samples and circulate the water if uniform temperature is needed. These relatively basic units work for a wide range of applications, from biochemistry and bacteriology to molecular biology and metallurgical analysis. Some of the smaller baths and chillers are even portable.

Some applications, like manufacturing processes, require larger baths or chillers. These floor units accommodate larger or multiple containers. Although these units usually stay in one place, models on wheels allow for easy relocation within a lab. Air- and water-based versions are available.

If energy consumption is a concern, consider a non-refrigerated chiller. In these units, a heat exchanger reduces the temperature of circulating water. Additionally, manufacturers of non-refrigerated chillers often note quiet operation.

In the end, the best bath or chiller depends on the task at hand as well as the likely ones ahead. Given all the options, picking a new bath or chiller is no easy task. Still, a bath or chiller should provide years of service, so it’s worth making time to explore the many units that are available.