Saturday, March 24, 2012

Chemistry "Hacks" (The Good Kind)

My hackathon drink of choice, coffee!
(And hey, ACS, why no more mugs?)
Last week, a fascinating article, "The 48-Hour Startup," appeared in Wired magazine. It explored the world of hackathons - events where pizza and Red Bull fuel two straight days of programming, hacking, and rebuilding code to create a functioning, marketable smartphone app. The upshot: some prize money, and sufficient street cred to attract more through angel investments. This article made me wonder . . .why don't more chemists have hackerspaces, like programmers and engineers do?

Let's go all the way back to the beginning of chemical research - who were we? Alchemists, who worked after hours, scribbling in secret languages; some hoped for profit, and some just loved the thrill (Sound familiar?). They didn't follow the implicit hegemony we do today: school student -> university trainee -> graduate study -> postdoc -> junior professor -> original ideas? By the time you're done jumping through hoops, you might have left your sense of curiosity and wonder behind.

Early Chemical "Hacker"
Alchemist with Scale, Johannes Weiland
Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation
Well, how do we discover anything? If you believe much of the popular press, either by accident (saccharine, guncotton, Velcro), or by deep thought and monastic contemplation (relativity, total synthesis, calculus). I'd add a third avenue: cross-fertilization, the genius behind Bell Labs' design for their "idea factory."

Ever beat your head against a research problem, only to find the answer at a neighboring department's seminar? Borrowed something the next lab down the hall had on the shelf? Not to wax all Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on you, but I subscribe to human quality precognition, a subtle mental undercurrent that guides you toward the right reaction or correct conditions. Others might call this gut instinct, and I've heard process chemists chat about initial optimization ("lucky on the first try!").

So why not speed this process along? Could we take a page from the video game designers, the hackers, and the dorm-room dot-com stars?

Here's my proposal (which, incidentally, might work pretty well at a large, national chemistry conference, just sayin'): What if visiting chemists had access to an open lab space, replete with all the latest catalysts, equipment, and reagents? One could imagine equipment dealers sponsoring this space, much like Cuisinart and KitchenAid sponsor cooking shows. 

Picture this, but with more fume hoods and Buchwald ligands
Access to a well-shimmed NMR and tuned LC-MS, along with a few high-speed internet connections and journal subscriptions, would complete the experience. Professors, hearing about a fantastic new reaction, wouldn't have to brief their lab groups. International scientists could mingle, and compare lab technique. Best of all? You could just play, try experiments for fun, on a whim, or because you were just curious about the result.

Who knows? Maybe, in time, the phrase "chemistry hack" might mean something good!


  1. The legal whatevers would be difficult, but workable. You'd think a NOS would be perfect for this sort of thing.

  2. There should also be high quality lab space available to skilled chemists outside of the academic and commercial sectors so they could pursue whatever research interested them. What about converting one of the research labs the pharma industry is closing so often into such a place, possibly along with a chemistry museum? Of course, this would only help those who live near that location... wait a minute, there are robotic telescopes people can run over the internet; how about a robotic lab? There all sorts of possibilities here...

  3. @CJ - I would totally make use of one. RE: 'legal whatevers', I would endeavor to have some sort of limited liability waiver, and (maybe) even a $10 monthly fee for things like labcoats, gloves, and perhaps insurance.

    @gippgig - Wow. I would LOVE to see the old pharma labs spring to life this way. Double the robo-lab, which, of course, would have a webcam to watch everyone's reactions as the pneumatic arms, auto-injectors, and medium-pressure pumps danced together...

  4. I wrote about this a while ago( It seems like the idea crops up quite often and I think it *should* happen somewhere. There really should not be any serious legal impediment to starting a lab. But the biggest hurdle is finding what paperwork needs to be filled in order for you to be covered. There isn't much advice on this out there from Gov/depts. No useful FAQ's to consult.

    @gippgig/@See Arr Oh, yeah an old pharma robot lab would be a cool idea! Actually setting up a robo lab that people/CROs/academics can rent might be a reasonable business model. Worth investigating anyway. A "cloud-lab".

  5. Let's figure out a way to make this happen! Must be lots of RTP lab space to repurpose.....

  6. There is a continuum here, from the hobbyist who wants to dabble to the enthusiast who wants to repeat classic experiments to the skilled chemist who wants to do real research. Similarly, there is a broad range of lab needed, from a simple home lab to a hackerspace type to an advanced lab. A home lab (whether set up by an individual or group) would need little or no paperwork (since it's not a commercial operation) but would have limited resources. A hackerspace type (assuming it rents space or charges for membership) would be a business and therefore have a lot of paperwork but might be able to make arrangements with a professional chemist for access to advanced equipment as needed. An advanced lab would be pretty expensive - but note that amateurs can build high-tech equipment for a fraction of the cost of commercial equipment (the "AMSAT effect" - AMSAT is a group of amateurs that have been building communication satellites for ham radio for decades and doing it for 1/30th the cost of an equivalent commercial satellite); amateurs have built electron microscopes, hydrogen fusion devices, etc. as well as satellites. The problem is that the people who could build the equipment generally aren't the same people who would want to use it. With all the labs that are closing used equipment might even be available for 1/30th the cost of new equipment as well.
    Also note that it might be possible to do serious research in a fairly simple lab such as developing new methods (photochemistry? - CVS sells a 253.7nm UV-C handheld sterilizer for about $20 for example). Of course, if your interest is theory you don't even need a lab to do real research - there's already more data out there than scientists can analyze.

  7. @gippgig - I completely agree with you on the continuum, and the glut of unanalyzed data.
    Home labs are fantastic, albeit a bit tough to set up in today's law enforcement climate. Even the hackerspace might be on shaky ground. I guess I hope for another path, where financing would come entirely from companies - STREM, Aldrich, Alfa, TCI, etc - wishing for you to use their products, and who might underwrite much of the direct costs (out of advertising budget?).
    I also agree with supplemental equipment purchased at CVS / Lowe's / ACS Hardware. A future post I have in mind will cover quite a few such "Chemical MacGyver" maneuvers.

    1. Why don't big chemical companies offer free lab space to skilled chemists in exchange for commercial rights to any discoveries they make? One lucky find would pay for it all...
      Strange coincidence: I just stopped at a local grocery store and spotted a "flavor injector" - a large syringe that was even calibrated in ml - in the bargain bin for $3.
      To dispose of small amounts of organic waste how about using a cheap Fresnel lens? As I recall, the focal point approaches 2000 degrees F in full sun. That should do the job.

  8. Hi's a very beatiful idea! (sorry for my english,...)...i just find this page because i'm searching words like 'hacking chemistry' o 'chemical hacking' ahahhaha i'm always in search of ANY form of hacking in ANY aspect of life : mind, brain, games, dreams, cousciesness,universe, life it's self! so...GO ON! :)
    Gil Gal

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