An Easier Way to Complete Polymer Research Experiments in Academia

University of North Carolina 2010 National Graduate Research Polymer ConferenceThis past week, I attended the National Graduate Research Polymer Conference (NGRPC), which was hosted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Department of Chemistry.  A well known polymer chemist and professor from another large state university commented without any prompting from me that he really would like to change from using round bottom flasks to using the EasyMax™ for their polymer syntheses.  I saw this as a good opportunity to learn from his perspective what he felt the inherent value was of the EasyMax™, an automated lab reactor system, in academia.

After all, haven’t we all heard so many times that graduate students provide cheap labor? What he told me was that there were two main reasons. The first was convenience – that ice baths and oil baths were simply troublesome and that using EasyMax™ would alleviate the need to use them. The second reason was that using EasyMax™ would allow them to run long reactions. He commented that it is not easy to manage a 20 hour reaction and that EasyMax™ would allow them to run overnight with good control. The fact that they could dose reagents using the automated dosing unit (he said “syringe pump”) was also attractive. I didn’t ask, but I assume that there is good value in having the capability for the unattended controlled addition of monomers and other reagents when synthesizing functionalized polymers. I took the opportunity to ask about the value of two other EasyMax™ benefits in order to get feedback on their importance in an academic setting. The first was the added safety that EasyMax™ brings not only from reducing the amount of contact with the chemistry, but also from having feedback control over the temperature of the reaction mass. There was an enthusiastic confirmation that this was a very important consideration. I then inquired about the value of having analytical information “for free.” I went on to explain that with EasyMax™ there is simultaneous measurement of the temperature of the reaction mass (Tr) and the temperature of the jacket (Tj), and that Tr-Tj = heat flow – that the integral of the heat flow gives conversion, which can then be used for kinetics analysis (perhaps even using iC Kinetics!).  He wasn’t aware prior to our conversation that this was yet another benefit of using the EasyMax™, but confirmed that this was another valuable benefit.

I want to add a few more insights of my own about the value of using EasyMax™ in any setting, including academia. The elimination of ice baths and oil baths by using EasyMax™ not only offers a lot of convenience, but also provides a lot more reaction control in general – not just temperature – but over all reaction parameters (e.g. stirring, dosing, etc). Ice baths give only the option of several set temperatures and oil baths, while giving more options than ice baths for temperature set points, are very slow to respond. Exothermic events simply add heat to the reaction mass. EasyMax™ responds to a change of the temperature in reaction mass by adjusting the jacket temperature to keep the reaction mass at its set point. Thermal electric cooling provides a phenomenally fast response and can keep most exothermic events under precise temperature control. At the NGRPC I had the pleasure of meeting Justin Kennemur, a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Novak Research Group at North Carolina State University Department of Chemistry.  He presented research on anthracene polymers that show reversible chiroptical switching over a narrow temperature of 31 – 44oC.  I thought about how the EasyMax™ could have been used to save a significant amount of time for what I imagine was a very tedious set of experiments.

Most people think automatically that the use of parallel automated lab reactors like EasyMax™ is mostly for a gain in productivity. Certainly it is true that productivity is enhanced because of the capability of unattended operation and being able to carry out multiple reactions in parallel. However, EasyMax™ in academia offers so much more than productivity. I already mentioned the importance of improved safety. One thing I hear about often is that the quantity of starting materials in academia is severely limited. What better way to make efficient use of a limited quantity of material than by making sure that every experiment is conducted exactly as planned so that no material is wasted? Then there is the added value of collecting the kinetics information via measuring heat flow as I explained earlier. Actually, I could argue that it all leads back to productivity – quality, information rich experiments means that less experiments are needed to provide the answers to the questions being sought which leads to a faster advancement of the research.