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

But what happens if a chemist should boil some chemical brew? Enter Pyrex, a borosilicate glass that may be extracted from hot to cold extremes without having to break.

And what about the researcher who needs numerous small vials, and doesn’t wish 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 requires a beaker made of something as inert as you can. Behold Teflon, a polymer that reacts with not many substances.

These are typically 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 future.

The oldest known glass objects are beads from Egypt that had been made around 2600 B.C. While no 4,000-year-old beakers are saved to record, today’s items of laboratory glassware, with care, could become museum pieces–or possibly even certainly be in use–in 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 lots of labs. But the glass industry has responded to advertise changes and is also not willing to be pushed out of your lab permanently.

Reusable glassware hasn’t changed much through the years, according to Andrew LaGrotte, group marketing manager at Schott America Glass & Scientific Products Inc. of Yonkers, N.Y. “Whoever invented the standard shapes had some foresight, as these shapes remain used today,” he says. Scientists generally choose their labware according to specific applications and personal preference. “The basic vessel found in the laboratory today, the beaker, is available in a variety of materials,” says John Babashak of Wheaton Scientific, operating out of Millville, N.J. Chemists can select beakers made of a borosilicate glass including Pyrex, plastic, or even platinum, dependant upon the level of heat and chemical resistance needed. Even beakers manufactured from paper are available, for paint chemists.

But overall, scientists’ necessity for Pipette has become reduced with the roll-out of unbreakable or single- use disposable plastic items, says Douglas Nicoll, vice president for technical services at Bellco Glass Inc. of Vineland, N.J. “This is especially valid with commodity [standard] such things as tubes, beakers, Erlenmeyer flasks, and pipettes.”

An obvious drawback to glass in comparison to plastic is its tendency to destroy. “Folks are careful during use not to break glass, as this might expose these to a hazardous situation, including toxic agents, carcinogens, radioactive or biological hazards,” says Nicoll. This care fails to necessarily extend to many other 36dexnpky of labwork, however. “By and far, the glass washing and preparation areas break the most glass,” he notes.

Although it isn’t an ideal solution to the situation of breakage, many of the smaller specialty companies provide glass repair. A high priced component of ammeter –a computerized buret, for instance–could be repaired for around half the expense of a fresh one, says Bob Cheatley, president of Cal-Glass for Research Inc., a Costa Mesa, Calif.-based company that does repairs within 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 advantages over plastic. Solvents, for instance, can dissolve some plastics, explains Nicoll. Some plastics are gas-permeable, so materials that may oxidize or experience a pH change are usually kept 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; where there’s a sterility requirement, glass is utilized most regularly.