Six tips to survive a heatwave working in a chemistry lab

Fiona in lab coat and specs holding a thermometer looking hot and bothered
Feeling hot and bothered

With a heatwave well under way in the south of the UK (which includes Brighton where I’m studying), folks are preparing for some serious heat! As a Scot, I do struggle with the southern climate compared to my baltic homeland. Towards the end of today we clocked on our thermometers it was 29 °C inside our lab while it was a balmy 32 °C outdoors.

The chemistry building I work in is a trusted building, meaning it can’t be altered for the sake of protecting the original architecture. As chemists don’t work with cells and live tissue, we don’t need to keep our labs at optimum temperature for our experiments to behave – if anything, a little heat makes them go a bit faster!

Concertina filter papers on a lab bench
Pre-flutted filter paper, or fans?

We are also required to wear full-length trousers and covered shoes when working in the lab, and this is before donning lab coats etc. At times, I am rather jealous of my friends and colleagues in biology who get to work in temperature-controlled surroundings with a slightly less strict dress code because of the nature of their work.

Over the past couple of years during my PhD, I have learned how to cope with working in a non-air conditioned chemistry laboratory. Here are my tips for keeping cool in a chemistry lab.

1. Get a bigger lab coat (and gloves)

Fiona smiling in a large lab coat
Enjoying my tent of a lab coat

All chemists handling potentially hazardous chemical substances are required to wear a lab coat, safety specs and gloves as part of their prescribed protective equipment (PPE). If you spot a spare coat in a size or two bigger than you’d normally have, why not swap your usual coat for it and enjoy the swish of the cotton about your knees to keep you cool? Similarly, go up a size in gloves if they fit reasonably well and allow you to continue your work.

2. Plan to do all your temperature-sensitive reactions

Dry ice sitting in a container with mysterious fog coming off it
Dry ice, ice, baby

 

Need to carry out a low-temperature reaction in a heatwave? Excellent! To control the rate of certain reactions, they need to be kept at a low temperature. Sometimes they only need to be cooled to 0-5 °C using iced water but sometimes they need to be as cool as -78 °C using dry ice (solid CO2) or liquid nitrogen (N2). Yes, you’ll need to top up your ice bath more often in the heat but at least it’s cold stuff you’re handling!

3. Run endothermic reactions

There are typically two types of chemical reaction in terms of how energy is transferred in the making and breaking of chemical bonds between starting materials and products. Some reactions are “exothermic”, in that they lose energy in order to form the desired chemical products (usually lost in the form of heat energy), or they are endothermic, where they do the opposite and take in energy from their surroundings, typically getting colder, and that energy gets stored up in chemical bonds. Running endothermic reactions means some of the energy around you, is literally being changed into chemical energy and removed from your environment.

4. Hang out in the NMR lab more

Fiona giving a thumbs up in the NMR lab
All the cool chemists hang out in the NMR lab, literally.

NMR stands for nuclear magnetic resonance. It’s an analytical technique that tells chemists about the general magnetic environment their molecules are in. These experiments are usually carried out on NMR instruments which require substances like liquid nitrogen and liquid helium to keep them running, which naturally leads to the NMR lab being a bit cooler. During the summer months, I tend to linger in the NMR lab a bit longer than usual when running my experiments because it is generally a few degrees cooler than my lab or office. Why not bring a paper and wait for your 30-minute experiment to finish running?

5. Bring spare shoes!

Most chemists aren’t spending 100% of their time in the lab. If you happen to have office space ouside of the lab, take the opportunity during your down time between experiments/analysis runs to slip on a more comfortable pair of shoes. I frequently swap my trainers for flip flops if I know I’m going to be sitting at my desk doing NMR analysis for half an hour. Just remember to switch back to your more substantial shoes when you go back into the lab!

6. Finally, take it easy

It’s easy to get stressed in warm weather but it’s not really wise (or safe!) to be running around the lab when you’re hot and bothered, trying to do everything at the same pace as when you don’t notice the temperature. Take your time, be careful handling stuff and if your lab is too hot to safely work in, it’s not safe to work in and there’s really nothing you can do about it. I was sent home from a summer placement one day during my undergrad because it was too hot for the fume hoods in the lab to extract chemical fumes properly. The chemistry can usually get done another time so go and take a chill pill – which should probably be in the form of going outside to enjoy the warm weather with an iced coffee!

I hope you found these six tips useful – or amusing at least – as you carry out your work in the warm weather. A huge shout out to those who don’t get a choice about the nature of their work when the weather changes. Keep hydrated, stay cool and protected from the sun as much as you can if working outside.

How do you find warm weather? Can you work in all climates? How do you cope in extreme weather, hot or cold? Let me know in the comments below.

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