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

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

And have you considered the researcher who needs numerous 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 wants a beaker made from something as inert as you can. Behold Teflon, a polymer that reacts with not many substances.

These are just some of the rapidly expanding choices offered in glassware and plasticware for scientific labs. Glass is actually a few millennia over the age of plastic, but both materials have distinct advantages. And also as advances in glass and plastic technology continue, neither material seems at risk of becoming obsolete soon.

The oldest known glass objects are beads from Egypt that have been made around 2600 B.C. While no 4,000-year-old beakers are stored on record, today’s bits of laboratory glassware, with good care, could become museum pieces–or possibly even be utilized–during 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. Although the glass industry has responded to showcase changes and is not able to be pushed from the lab forever.

Reusable glassware hasn’t changed much over 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, since these shapes continue to be used today,” he says. Scientists generally choose their labware according to specific applications and personal preference. “The really basic vessel employed in the laboratory today, the beaker, is available in an array of materials,” says John Babashak of Wheaton Scientific, operating out of Millville, N.J. Chemists can choose beakers created from a borosilicate glass including Pyrex, plastic, and even platinum, based on the volume of heat and chemical resistance needed. Even beakers manufactured from paper are offered, for paint chemists.

But overall, scientists’ desire for pH paper has been reduced with the roll-out 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 also true with commodity [standard] such things as tubes, beakers, Erlenmeyer flasks, and pipettes.”

An evident downside of glass in comparison with plastic is its tendency to destroy. “Folks are careful during use to not break glass, since 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 for some other 36dexnpky of labwork, however. “By and far, the glass washing and preparation areas break the most glass,” he notes.

While it isn’t the perfect answer to the problem of breakage, lots of the smaller specialty companies offer glass repair. A pricey piece of ammeter –an automated buret, for instance–might be repaired for roughly half the cost of a fresh one, says Bob Cheatley, president of Cal-Glass for Research Inc., a Costa Mesa, Calif.-based company that does repairs as part of its specialty glass business. “[Repaired items] don’t look as good, but they’re as functional as once they were new.”

Despite the possibility of breakage, glass has several positive aspects over plastic. Solvents, for example, can dissolve some plastics, explains Nicoll. Some plastics are gas-permeable, so materials that may oxidize or experience a pH change are usually held in glass containers. In addition, glass is 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 can be used most often.