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Beakers and bottles, dispensers and droppers, pipettes and Microscope. Labware like this used to be available in one material–glass. A glass beaker may last indefinitely, as long as it isn’t dropped or heated too fast or loaded with certain highly reactive chemicals.

But what happens if a chemist should boil some chemical brew? Enter Pyrex, a borosilicate glass that can be removed from hot to cold extremes without breaking.

And how about the researcher who needs countless small vials, and doesn’t desire 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 demands a beaker created from something as inert as possible. Behold Teflon, a polymer that reacts with hardly any substances.

These are 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 also as advances in glass and plastic technology continue, neither material seems in danger of becoming obsolete soon.

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

In recent history, new plastics have pushed their way into the formerly glass-dominated domain of labware. Furthermore, automation has reduced the role of glassware in many labs. But the glass industry has responded to showcase changes and is also not prepared to be pushed out from the lab for good.

Reusable glassware hasn’t changed much throughout the years, in accordance with Andrew LaGrotte, group marketing manager at Schott America Glass & Scientific Products Inc. of Yonkers, N.Y. “Whoever invented the standard shapes had some foresight, because they shapes will still be used today,” he says. Scientists generally choose their labware in accordance with specific applications and personal preference. “The particular basic vessel used in the laboratory today, the beaker, can be purchased in a variety of materials,” says John Babashak of Wheaton Scientific, based in Millville, N.J. Chemists can choose beakers made of a borosilicate glass like Pyrex, plastic, and even platinum, based on the level of heat and chemical resistance needed. Even beakers made from paper can be found, for paint chemists.

But overall, scientists’ requirement for Pipette has been reduced with the creation 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 especially true with commodity [standard] stuff like tubes, beakers, Erlenmeyer flasks, and pipettes.”

A clear downside of glass when compared with plastic is its tendency to get rid of. “Everyone is careful during use to never break glass, as this might expose those to a hazardous situation, for example toxic agents, carcinogens, radioactive or biological hazards,” says Nicoll. This care is not going to necessarily extend to other 36dexnpky of labwork, however. “By and far, the glass washing and preparation areas break the most glass,” he notes.

Though it isn’t an ideal strategy to the issue of breakage, most of the smaller specialty companies do offer glass repair. A costly part of filter paper –a computerized buret, by way of example–could be repaired for about half the cost of a replacement, 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 whenever they were new.”

Despite the danger of breakage, glass has several advantages over plastic. Solvents, for instance, can dissolve some plastics, explains Nicoll. Some plastics are gas-permeable, so materials that could oxidize or experience a pH change are usually held in glass containers. Moreover, glass is much more easily sterilized than most plastics, says Frank Nunziata, sales manager for Pequannock, N.J.’s Bel-Art Products; so how there’s a sterility requirement, glass is utilized most frequently.