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Beakers and bottles, dispensers and droppers, pipettes and Microscope. Labware such as this had been available in a single material–glass. A glass beaker may last indefinitely, as long as it isn’t dropped or heated too fast or full of certain highly reactive chemicals.

But imagine if a chemist must boil some chemical brew? Enter Pyrex, a borosilicate glass that may be removed from hot to cold extremes without breaking.

And how about the researcher who needs countless small vials, and doesn’t want to take the time or money to clean them between uses? Enter plastic–a material both cheap and disposable.

And then there’s the scientist who needs a beaker manufactured from something as inert as is possible. Behold Teflon, a polymer that reacts with hardly any substances.

These are generally just some of the rapidly expanding choices obtainable in glassware and plasticware for scientific labs. Glass is actually a few millennia older than plastic, but both materials have distinct advantages. And as advances in glass and plastic technology continue, neither material seems in danger of becoming obsolete in the near future.

The oldest known glass objects are beads from Egypt that have been made around 2600 B.C. While no 4,000-year-old beakers are stored on record, today’s bits of laboratory glassware, with good care, could become museum pieces–or simply even still be being used–in the year 2600 A.D.

In recent history, new plastics have pushed their distance to the formerly glass-dominated domain of labware. Moreover, automation has reduced the role of glassware in numerous labs. Nevertheless the glass industry has responded to showcase changes and is not willing to be pushed out of the lab for good.

Reusable glassware hasn’t changed much over time, according to Andrew LaGrotte, group marketing manager at Schott America Glass & Scientific Products Inc. of Yonkers, N.Y. “Whoever invented the fundamental shapes had some foresight, because these shapes continue to be used today,” he says. Scientists generally choose their labware based on specific applications and private preference. “The very basic vessel employed in the laboratory today, the beaker, can be found in an array of materials,” says John Babashak of Wheaton Scientific, operating out of Millville, N.J. Chemists can decide beakers made from a borosilicate glass like Pyrex, plastic, or perhaps platinum, dependant upon the level of heat and chemical resistance needed. Even beakers manufactured from paper can be purchased, for paint chemists.

But overall, scientists’ need for Pipette is reduced with the development of unbreakable or single- use disposable plastic items, says Douglas Nicoll, v . p . for technical services at Bellco Glass Inc. of Vineland, N.J. “This is also true with commodity [standard] such things as tubes, beakers, Erlenmeyer flasks, and pipettes.”

A clear downside of glass when compared with plastic is its tendency to destroy. “Everyone is careful during use to not break glass, simply because this might expose these to a hazardous situation, including toxic agents, carcinogens, radioactive or biological hazards,” says Nicoll. This care will not necessarily extend to many other 36dexnpky of labwork, however. “By and far, the glass washing and preparation areas break probably the most glass,” he notes.

Even though it isn’t an ideal solution to the trouble of breakage, many of the smaller specialty companies do offer glass repair. An expensive bit of Skeleton model –a computerized buret, as an example–can be repaired for around half the cost of a completely new one, says Bob Cheatley, president of Cal-Glass for Research Inc., a Costa Mesa, Calif.-based company that does repairs as an element of its specialty glass business. “[Repaired items] don’t look nearly as good, but they’re as functional as once they were new.”

Despite the possibility of breakage, glass has several positive aspects over plastic. Solvents, for example, can dissolve some plastics, explains Nicoll. Some plastics are gas-permeable, so materials which could oxidize or experience a pH change are generally stored in glass containers. Additionally, glass is far more easily sterilized than most plastics, says Frank Nunziata, sales manager for Pequannock, N.J.’s Bel-Art Products; so where there’s a sterility requirement, glass can be used most often.