Low-Tech Lab Essentials

There are a lot of high-tech tools that are absolutely essential to the functioning of my lab. The diode lasers I use are a couple hundred bucks each, and only available from a handful of companies. I've got a couple of digital oscilloscopes that are really impressive instruments, packing a huge amount of signal-processing power into a single smallish box. I have an infrared viewer that I use to see the beam, and the lab is literally just about shut down when a colleague needs to borrow it.

Something that people outside of experimental physics don't really appreciate, though, is that there are also surprisingly low-tech items that are also absolutely essential to the smooth functioning of a physics lab. For example, Post-It notes.

If you look at the optical tables in my lab, or just about any other laser lab in the world, you'll find Post-It notes all over the place. You see, cartoons aside, lasers are not visible as they pass through clear air, so you need to put something into the beam in order to see it. And you frequently need to make small adjustments to the position of a beam by making small changes to the tilt of a mirror some distance away from the point you care about.

Post-It notes are the perfect solution for this. The 1"x2" size are small enough to use in beam tracking on even a crowded optical table (and can be folded over and stuck to themselves to make even smaller tabs for really tight places). They can also be stuck to mirror or lens mounts to provide a surface for tracking the beam position from across the table, and can be un-stuck and re-stuck many times for iterative alignment procedures.

(Old computer punch cards are another surprisingly useful item-- there's a 2" stack on a drawer in my lab, probably from somebody's Ph.D. thesis back in the day, and they're always being pressed into service as screens and beam stops. If you find one with a hole at just the right height, they're also great for checking back-scatter.)

There are a bunch of other low-tech items whose loss would cripple the lab (3/16" balldrivers are at the top of the list), but Post-Its are right up there for people who play with lasers. If you look in a laser lab, you'll probably find a bunch of pads of Post-Its scattered around.

What's your favorite low-tech research essential?

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1. Double-sided sticky tape

2. Nail polish

I'm also a big fan of post-it notes for beam-tracking. Also, business cards.

In the last experiment I worked on allumminum foil was absolutely essential to getting the electronic noise at an acceptable level.

By a cornellian (not verified) on 08 Nov 2007 #permalink

In a molecular/cell biology lab saran wrap and aluminum foil are used for a lot of different applications. Saran wrap keeps samples from drying out and aluminum foil keeps light off of sensitive reagents.

Fun question :)

When I was working with ink-jets at Kodak, it was definitely a mop and bucket :D.

For prototyping of jigs, the hot-melt glue gun was great for tacking things in to place, and zap straps for keeping wiring out of the ink and tubing in place.

When we built a clean-room, the best solution for visualizing our air flows was an old kettle and some dry ice.

But, the most important piece of equipment was the labeler. Being able to print out a nice, easy to read label quickly was the only thing that kept me sane in the mass of tubes, wires and spurting ink that was our lab!


I have found that the most versatile tools (and my red neck is showing with this one) are duct tape and bailing wire. Now, bailing wire probably won't come in handy at a laser lab but they work for just about anywhere else. When I was a kid my siblings and I built a nice fort from junk left in a huge brush pile behind our house. It's held together with mostly bailing wire.

I have also found usefulness in the otherwise useless garbage ties. They're great for holding cords together and if you strip them the wires can be used to bridge electrical connections... temporarily. I once used a garbage tie to replace a jumper on a computer mother board. It worked well enough until the one's I ordered came in.

We call it "Southern Engineering" and my family is well known for it.

I must admit, postits being used to adjust lasers. That's not just genius... that's hilarious! Low tech solutions for high tech problems.

Razor blades. Don't see how you could do physics without 'em!

By Mister Troll (not verified) on 08 Nov 2007 #permalink

I use the business cards from tech reps to do laser alignments. They're rigid, which I like since I can mark measured points on the cards through which I want the beam to pass. They're also free, and I'll always have the number nearby if I need to call the manufacturer.

I second the use of twist ties to hold wires and gas lines together.

Other things: I use paper towels (free from custodial services) as quick, clean countertop work surfaces (as long as I'm not working with acids). I'm also a big fan of JB Weld for mounting samples and sealing small cracks. Another household item I use regularly is baby oil for my oil baths. I could purchase pure mineral oil (which in bulk is probably a little cheaper), but I like the fresh smell generated by warming the baby oil on a hot plate.

By Harry Abernathy (not verified) on 08 Nov 2007 #permalink

Scotch tape tends to be quite useful for cleaning up accidentally spilled powder in a drybox. I also use it to create a little flow cell on a slide, with some kimwipes and a pipette...My lab uses nail polish a lot to seal the edges of a coverslip onto slides.

And for the geneticist, there's always the 'ole toothpick.

Silly putty is very useful for holding larger electronic components in place prior to soldering them down. Like post-it notes, silly putty comes off easily leaving little residue. Smaller components, like surface mount resistors, will get way too hot to use silly putty to hold them.

By Carl Brannen (not verified) on 08 Nov 2007 #permalink

Parafilm! I can't live without that stuff...

Aluminium foil is essential around here, too. We're technically an applied chemistry lab, but still. The stuff is especially good for putting out fires in small crucibles.

By Pseudonym (not verified) on 08 Nov 2007 #permalink

Seconded on the parafilm. It's ridiculously useful for sealing just about any container. Lab tape is essential, too.

The conductive paste for repairing a car's rear defroster is perfect for mounting drill bits (of the sort that other people might call 38 gauge wire). The stuff that is basically pure silver is reserved for the cryostat.

- Parafilm, of course.
@ #13 I've heard of people using it to seal cuts as well!

- Kimwipes

(why is it that scientific equivalents of kitchen expendables are so awesome?)

- Stirrer bar retriever (a stirrer bar pressed into the end of a length of plastic tubing so that it can be dipped into residue bottles and other Bad Places to retrieve other stirrer bars)

- Ultraviolet LED keyring (great for viewing TLCs, AU$5 from Jaycar)

- Dry erase pen, for writing on fume hoods

In a classical mechanics lab, there is no problem that can't be solved by duct tape or sandpaper.

Al foil, hands down. Great for reducing electrical noise, great as a temporary, relatively clean, workspace, and for covering light-sensitive cuvettes. My favorite use, though, is insulating UHV chambers so the glass windows don't crack when you do a bake-out. On my very first day working in a physics lab as an undergraduate my professor said, "Here are the keys to my car and $20. Go go the grocery store and buy 8 boxes of extra-wide heavy-duty Al foil. Then come back and wrap this chamber."

By Andrew Y. (not verified) on 09 Nov 2007 #permalink

Craft sticks (or tongue depressors) for mixing epoxy.