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Product Focus: Laboratory Power

More than just power supplies

Angelo DePalma, PhD

Angelo DePalma is a freelance writer living in Newton, New Jersey. You can reach him at

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Since standard laboratory equipment contains its own individually designed power supplies that plug into standard electrical outlets, many labs rarely use external power supplies—mostly for specialty applications, instrument testing, and design.

OEM power supplies operate steadily and predictably at one output inside equipment, instruments, and computers. By contrast, low- and medium-voltage programmable supplies are designed for applications— particularly in testing, measurement, and instrument design—where users might require 12V one day and 5V the next, says Mel Berman, product marketing manager at TDK-Lambda (San Diego, CA). “When designing battery-operated equipment or products, programmable power supplies allow you to change the voltage to simulate battery behavior over time.”

In November 2012, TDK expanded its line of Z+ series programmable power supplies. The new units, operating at 200 watts, complement the older 400-watt models. These highdensity 2U-format (“U” refers to a rack-height equivalent, or 1.75 inches) benchtop and rack-mountable power supplies are designed for automatic test equipment, laboratory and OEM applications in test and measurement, semiconductors, component testing, LEDs/lasers, amplifiers, electromagnetics, and electrochemistry. All Z+ models operate in a constant-current or constant-voltage mode from a wide 85VAC to 265VAC input.

Like most laboratory equipment, power supplies have become more compact and feature-rich over the years. TDK has incorporated many improvements in the Z+. “More bells and whistles in a smaller box,” Berman tells Lab Manager Magazine. Another trend is the expansion of serial computer interfaces, which allows programming power sequences on the fly via either a connected or remote computer. “Remote control is useful in situations where you’re operating or testing equipment in hazardous locations.”

The high end

The most familiar lab power supplies drive electrophoresis equipment and electroplating at low to medium power. High voltages are more applicable to “core” sciences such as physical chemistry, physics, metallurgy, materials science, and some life science applications. Highvoltage power supplies also power ion and electron beams that drive a unique set of highpower applications in chemistry, materials, and life sciences.

James Morrison, CEO and cofounder of UltraVolt (Ronkonkoma, NY), explains that high-voltage power supplies can electrostatically remove particles from fluids, based on molecular weights or electrical charge. These applications amount to electrostatic precipitation or electrophoresis capable of purifying both the fluid and the low-concentration component. High-voltage supplies also help purify DNA and introduce it into cells for biomedical work such as gene therapy.

Ion beams have wide applicability in concentration, milling, welding, cutting, imaging, and polishing materials, plus in electrodeposition and electroplating. “Most of these instruments come with power supplies, but some researchers like to build their own or modify commercial instruments. This is where stand-alone highvoltage power supplies come in,” Morrison says.

Electron and ion beams—made possible by high-voltage power supplies—are increasingly used to manipulate materials at ultranano domains. Ion beams carry materials through time-of-flight mass spectrometers. They also can cut into integrated circuits to analyze and repair them or deposit minute quantities of materials into semiconductor wafers at 0.1-micron resolution. Beams are assisting in the creation of safer materials by removing lead from solder and cadmium and hexavalent chromium from platings.

Beyond the supply

The quality and accessibility of electrical services are as important to labs as is the power source itself. Surge protectors and uninterruptable power supplies have for decades been staples of industrial and even home computing. Protecting expensive non-computer equipment from the vagaries of the electrical grid is beginning to catch on as well.

Dr. Sue Weintraub, who directs The University of Texas at San Antonio’s core mass spectrometry laboratory, often slept poorly during thunderstorms because her facility’s instrumentation was vulnerable to “bumps” caused by frequent power outages. The core lab’s Thermo Fisher LTQ MS® linear ion trap mass spectrometer was particularly susceptible to loss of data that could have taken days to replace. Weintraub got in touch with Franek Technologies (Tustin, CA), which specializes in certified, battery backup power protection. Franek custom-designed a power protection system that guaranteed flawless 24/7 operation of the ion trap system regardless of the quality of electricity entering the facility from the grid. Weintraub reports that the protected instrumentation has worked smoothly since October 2008. “I wouldn’t order another mass spectrometer without including supplemental power protection,” Weintraub stated.

Although it does not manufacture power supplies, Universal Electric (Canonsburg, PA) provides products and services related to electrical distribution and accessibility. The company began in the 1930s as an electrical contractor; then became involved in industrial and mobile electrification; and finally entered markets for powering equipment, data centers, and laboratories. After working on a project for the National Institutes of Health, the company noted the need for flexibility in delivering electricity within labs. Reconfiguring electrical systems without incurring high costs or delays is useful as labs grow, acquire new equipment, or are repurposed.

Universal’s solution was the STARLINE Plug- In Raceway® product, a wall-mounted bank of replaceable, reconfigurable electrical outlets that meet all the electrical requirements a lab is likely to encounter. Users can add or relocate plug-in modules anywhere on the unit quickly, eliminating the time and cost of reconfiguring circuits, receptacles, and wiring or even opening up the circuit box.

“We offer any combination of receptacle types, ranging from regular duplex outlets you would find in homes to 208-volt for a heated centrifuge, all the way up to three-phase receptacles for driving electrical motors,” says Mark Swift, business development manager.

This level of flexibility is useful in labs that frequently bring equipment in on skids and remove it to storage after use; that add large, powerconsuming instruments to existing space; or that take over space that was previously occupied by a different group. In the past, these events triggered a call to electrical trades to reconfigure the local grid or install new power lines. “The ability to reconfigure workspace by popping receptacles off the wall and positioning them where needed provides labs with options to handle anything coming down the road,” Swift adds.

For additional resources on laboratory power supplies, including useful articles and a list of manufacturers, visit