Micro-scale chemistry revolutionizes labs

March 13, 1991|By Luther Young | Luther Young,Sun Staff Correspondent

COLLEGE PARK -- In the old days at the University of Maryland, an undergraduate organic chemistry laboratory was one of the most unloved places on campus.

There were foul odors, flaming Bunsen burners, fragile glassware, roaring fume hoods and unsteady bottles of noxious chemicals that could dissolve a careless student's sneakers and quickly reduce a cotton lab coat to tatters.

Today? Through a quiet revolution known as "micro-scale" chemistry, students are conducting experiments with down-sized equipment and tiny samples that dramatically reduce accident risk, fumes and hazardous waste, plus the expense of buying and storing chemicals.

"It's the future, and I guess the only question is why it wasn't thought of years ago," said instructor Dorothy Mazzocchi, laboratory manager for the lower division organic chemistry courses at College Park.

When the university adopted micro-scale in the spring of 1989, it joined a host of other schools -- now estimated at 600 nationwide -- thathave proved the effectiveness of the program since its 1985 introduction by three chemistry professors at Bowdoin College in Maine.

It's now solidly established at College Park in all sections of CHEM 233-244, the sophomore organic chemistry course that attracts 500 to 600 students a year, including night and summer school sessions.

"I love micro-scale," said Tammy Galitcer, a 19-year-old University of Maryland sophomore from Pikesville. "These are the fastest, cleanest labs I've ever done. It's unbelievable how gross they could get."

Her petite equipment -- less fragile than traditional glassware -- comes in a $200 micro-scale kit supplied to each student. The kit contains apparatus with snap-on plastic connectors, shot glass-sized beakers, test tubes no bigger than a pencil stub and tiny syringes.

The chemical samples for experiments are reduced in size 100 to 1,000 times, Dr. Mazzocchi said, quantities so small that students must check the success of their lab work with sophisticated analytical instrumentation once reserved for advanced chemistry majors.

Micro-scale also cuts back on solvents that make organic labs the largest generator of hazardous waste for chemistry departments. "In someexperiments, you could fill a 5-gallon bottle [with waste] every lab period," she said. "Now, it might take a week or longer."

College Park's costs to dispose of hazardous waste -- including material from all departments -- has skyrocketed, from $72,500 in fiscal 1984 to $800,000 in fiscal 1992. Estimates for fiscal 1993 put the expense at $1.5 million.

Increasingly stringent federal regulations governing waste disposal and laboratory safety were the driving force behind micro-scale, said Bowdoin Professor Dana W. Mayo, one of the three who invented the method and wrote the textbook used at the University of Maryland.

"When we looked at organic instruction, we couldn't find any reason, except habit and tradition, why everything was done on this large scale," Dr. Mayo said. "There was no pressure to enter the real world, where bottom-line costs of materials and labor dictate procedures."

It took several years to work out the bugs and redo experiments that, in some cases, were designed for the chemistry labs of a century ago. Large-scale equipment will continue to be required with bigger samples or more complex procedures, said Dr. Mayo.

There exists some resistance among traditionalists, who see the natural order as letting inexperienced freshmen and sophomores learn the ropes with big, less-exacting equipment.

"In high school, we used to work with the big stuff," said sophomore Hong Chu, 20, from Greenbelt. "With micro-scale, if you spill it or screw up, you're out of luck. There's nothing left."

Dr. George Farrant, chairman of the chemistry department at Catonsville Community College, said his school has adopted a "semi-micro" program that doesn't require as much expensive instrumentation and preserves more large-scale experience. "Many of our students go on to industry, and we're concerned that if they only learned micro-scale, they might have trouble with the big equipment when they get out on their jobs," he said.

Other Maryland schools have also addressed the costly waste and safety problems, although none face College Park's waste volume. Some -- including Towson State University, Prince George's Community College and Montgomery College -- are experimenting with micro-scale, and most schools have implementeddownsizing programs.

Advocates discount fears that students might acquire "micro-scale myopia" by learning the method so early in their training. Instead, they report improved all-around laboratory technique. "I think students become aware early on that they can't be careless. They become much more dextrous in handling chemicals and equipment," said Dr. Mazzocchi.

Other benefits? Since experiments go quicker, students spend less time waiting for their pots to boil and more time doing additional experiments. Although micro-scale is currently restricted to the organic program at College Park, the technique may become available in inorganic and general chemistry courses, a development that could transform traditional chemistry instruction in the first two years of college.

"These early labs are important. It's when many students make decisions about whether or not to go on in chemistry," said Dr. Mayo. "If we make the labs more fun and less smelly, it can't hurt."

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