By Bob Fagaly, Ph.D.

Physics Lab No. 7, Texas A&M.  Copyright Cushing Memorial Library.
Physics Lab No. 7, Texas A&M. Copyright Cushing Memorial Library.

Twice in my career, I’ve had to build a laboratory from scratch. Once as a graduate student and once as a group leader. While I can’t say the first time was fun, the second time was an enjoyable experience.

I think the main reason was money. When I was a physics graduate student at a state university, my advisor was a freshly minted assistant professor with an empty set of rooms and a minimal budget to outfit a laboratory to pursue low temperature physics research. As I recall, I was allotted less than $10,000 to build the equipment that would eventually become the basis for my Ph.D. dissertation.

My research was on properties of materials at temperatures slightly above absolute zero. This required building a dilution refrigerator and acquiring the instrumentation required to measure temperatures as low as 0.02 kelvin. Even back then, a commercially available dilution refrigerator cost over $100,000. Just the 15+ liters of helium-3 gas needed to operate the dilution refrigerator was going to cost over $4,500.

Obviously with a budget of less than $10,000, a commercial system was out of the question. It was possible to build a dilution refrigerator, as the basic design was a decade old (which might tell you when I was doing my research). The other advantage I had was that I was a graduate student whose labor costs were infinitesimally small. It is also a known fact that a graduate student’s work week far exceeds that of any other sector of society. Remember, the slavery clause of the 13th amendment of the US constitution does not apply to graduate students.

The advantage of having little or no money is that it teaches the student to be creative. Scavenging becomes a fine art. Back then, there were no companies that specialized in surplus scientific equipment. Certainly, equipment manufacturers didn’t want to sell used equipment.

Veeco Leak Detector. Copyright IntelFreePress.
Veeco Leak Detector. Copyright IntelFreePress.

Finding surplus equipment was like winning the lottery. My helium leak detectors were World War II vintage devices (found on a US Government surplus list) that were so old that the Veeco repair technician had only seen pictures of them. We ended up with three and by cannibalizing, I was able to get one to work. Taking them apart taught me a lot about vacuum technology and why you don’t want to have a leak in an oil-based diffusion pump when it is running (think how enjoyable it is to clean the grill of a gas barbeque—now think about cleaning carbonized oil from the inside of a convoluted stainless steel vessel the size of a Mr. Coffee©pot).

We did win the surplus equipment lottery one time. My advisor’s old lab at Ohio State was being shut down and his advisor told him that he could come down and take anything that wasn’t wanted by any of the Ohio State Physics professors. We drove down to Columbus and gathered up a bunch of old analog instrumentation that nobody wanted along with an unused gas handling system with old vacuum valves and plumbing and two gas storage tanks.

When we got back, we inventoried our loot and found that the gas handling system still contained 30 liters of helium-3 gas, an essential component of a dilution refrigerator. The actual gas handling system is illustrated as figure 8.5 (chapter VIII, section 2) in Guy White’s Experimental Techniques in Low-Temperature Physics (3rd ed) p. 207. Those 30 liters in today’s money would be worth more than $75,000 (which definitely qualifies as a lottery win).

With that one trip, I saved half of my equipment budget. That allowed me to buy the instrumentation critical to completing my measurements. I was able to modify the gas handling system to be used in my home-built dilution refrigerator system and eventually achieved temperatures below 0.03 kelvin, sufficient to complete the measurements needed for my dissertation. The skills I developed were essential to my later career and definitely were a plus in finding a post-doctoral position, and afterwards, permanent employment.

Fifteen or so years later, I found myself as the cryogenics group leader within General Atomics’ Inertial Fusion Energy effort. We had just won a large multi-year development contract and I was tasked to develop a system to fill and deliver DT-filled cryogenic targets to the target chamber of the University of Rochester’s 60 beam 40 kJ Omega laser.

To win the contract, General Atomics had agreed to build a new multi-laboratory facility and I was in charge of the cryogenics lab. By the time the target delivery system was completed, the equipment budget looked like my graduate student budget, but with a couple of zeros tacked onto it.

Thermo Savant vacuum pump at BioSurplus.
Thermo Savant vacuum pump at BioSurplus.

Let me tell you, it is nice to have a ton of money when you build a lab. Life becomes much easier and vendors are much nicer to you. They actually return phone calls when they realize you have money that you have to spend quickly. If you need custom equipment, you can get someone else to build it for you to your exact specifications.

I do have to say that—even though I had (by my standards) a huge budget—it wasn’t infinite. There were still things I would have liked to have added to the lab. A backup vacuum pump would have been nice, as would a microgram sensitive analytical balance. A couple of extra oxygen sensors would have made the OSHA inspectors happier (oxygen depletion is a concern in rooms where cryogenic liquids are stored). And so on.

Back then (and this is a blatant plug), companies like BioSurplus didn’t exist. Had one existed, I could have saved significant amounts of money and time (refurbishing a vacuum tube Veeco MS-7 leak detector can take as much time as rebuilding the engine on a 1962 327 cu. in. Chevrolet Corvette and is nowhere near as much fun).

Yes, new equipment is nice, but if you can find refurbished equipment (especially if the supplier will back it with a warranty), go for it.  If your experiment depends on obsolete items (or even spares), spending pennies now may save you dollars (or weeks of down time) later on. I’m basically a frugal person (my wife calls me cheap); I don’t mind used equipment if I know it will give me good value. Sometimes used equipment can be better than new equipment—especially if you know it works and the original purchaser took the depreciation hit. There is also (at least for me) the satisfaction in finding that semi-unique item that is key to your experiment at less than half the price of a new one.

So what is the moral of this story? If you going to build a complete lab from the ground up or just populate a small bench top, it just might be worthwhile to look at what surplus equipment is available. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you can find these days.