Yesterday, I spent $52 (plus shipping) buying sand. Not a gret big sack of sand, either– just 200 grams of it. I count it as a bargain, too, because I was prepared to spend twice the amount for half as much.
Now, granted, the $1000/kg sand is extremely high purity silicon dioxide, designed to be used in putting high-quality coatings on optical elements, and I would’ve bought that if it hadn’t been back-ordered. The cheaper stuff is slightly lower purity– 99.9% instead of 99.95%– but it ought to work. And they had it in stock at Aldrich, so I decided to take a chance, and save $50 in the process.
But still, I’m paying $260/kg for sand.
This is a little more absurd than the usual scenario, but weirdly high costs are part of doing physics these days. When you’re looking for specialized devices to do very specialized tasks, you end up shelling out a lot of money for things.
Explaining the costs of things is one of the funnier parts of introducing research students to the lab. I had a student a couple of summers ago who shorted out a diode laser he was working with, and was really apologetic about it.
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“Don’t worry about it,” I said, “It was only about a hundred bucks.” His eyes just about came out of their sockets when he heard that, so I had to explain that that’s pretty cheap for a diode laser. I’ve got a bag full of diodes that were $10 each, but they’re basically useless to me. The ones that are useful cost between $100 and $500, and I’ve got two that were $675 apiece.
And from the outside, they all look exactly like the lasers in a cheap CD player. “But, they’re so small!” my student said when I explained the price structure.
The current controllers for those lasers range from about $300 (for a bare-bones model) to a bit over $1000 for a fancier model with a built-in display and a lot of safety features (money well spent, given the way the power has flickered on and off over the years). I went with the $300 temperature controllers, because they’re not as fragile. Miscellaneous other parts probably average out at $50 or so, putting the full grating-locked diode system at $2,000-2,500, not counting the cost of the labor to build the mounts. The higher-power laser I’m injection locking comes in at $1,500-$2,000
And this is the cheap route. A commercial system to do the same thing would be between $5,000 and $10,000, depending on the manufacturer and the laser wavelength you’re after. The deluxe solution would do away with the injection-locked laser, replacing the whole thing with a titanium-sapphire laser system, which will set you back something on the high side of $150,000 for the Ti:sapph and a doubled YAG to pump it. I’m not sure of the exact price of that sort of system, as it’s just too depressing to get a solid estimate…
And that’s just the lasers. If you want to do anything with that light, you need to move it around the lab by bouncing it off mirrors, and a research-quality dielectric mirror in an adjustable mount will set you back $110, when they’re on sale. I’ve got something like 75 of those in my lab at the moment, and I always need more. Lenses, beamsplitters, and waveplates start around a hundred bucks each, and go way up from there. The posts and clamps and holders to keep all this stuff in place are pretty cheap, but still, it adds up.
And that’s not even touching the vacuum hardware.
I’ve spent something in the neighborhood of $150,000 building up my lab, and I had the advantage of starting with a number of big items already in the room (three large optical tables being the most important part of that). The most expensive single item in the room is a turbopump system that set me back about $14,000 (thank you, NSF), which is at least impressive enough that the students don’t scoff when I tell them the price. The rest of that is made up of lots of little, expensive items.
And I’m doing this whole thing on the cheap. A colleague who’s at a large research university on the west coast told me that he figured out he needs to raise $500,000 in external grants to keep his lab running. Every. Year. And that’s still AMO physics, which is the cheap, table-top stuff– everybody’s seen the eye-popping price tags that the big accelerators carry.
So, really, it’s not surprising that a bunch of physicists managed to blow through a million dollars in a few short weeks. What would be surprising is if we hadn’t managed to find stuff to spend that money on.
After all, I’m paying $260/kg for sand.