Volume 87 Issue 1 | p. 6 | Letters
Issue Date: January 5, 2009

More About Chemistry Hobbyists

Department: Letters

FINALLY, someone speaks up for the amateur chemist (C&EN, Nov. 10, page 38)! I have always dreamed of being a gentleman chemist with a basement lab like Joseph Priestley and most of the other pioneers. But it is impossible. Try to order a chemical, even something as innocuous as acetone, from Aldrich or another supplier. Unless you are with a company or university, you will be refused. There is no law against it, but for insurance and other reasons no one will sell it to you. "It's not safe," you are told, although you can buy a bottle of nail polish containing 80% acetone from a drug store with no questions asked.

Contrast this with the situation of another group of hobbyists, gun enthusiasts. The equipment they need for their hobby is far more dangerous if misused and is readily available, yet they continually complain they are an oppressed minority because there is a limit to the number of guns they can buy per week and they have to wait a few days to get them. They are a pampered elite who are the beneficiaries of discrimination rather than its victims.

One wonders how many other hobbyists are second-class citizens besides freelance chemists. I wonder how the butterfly collectors are faring.

Victor Nelson
Frederick, Md.

IN RESPONSE to the article, "Underground Science," it seems to me that a possible solution would be for state and government-run colleges, universities, and even high schools to open their laboratories, under proper supervision, to budding scientists, retired scientists, and others so their creative talents could be encouraged and nurtured. Such an approach would avoid the possibilities of having safety hazards in inappropriate places and bypass the need for the intrusion of minor local officials.

The need has become more urgent because the purchase of chemicals and equipment has become more difficult due to our paranoia concerning real or imagined terrorist activities and illicit drug preparation. This could be a free service to taxpayers, or at least could be accomplished with a minimal charge.

Albert Y. Garner
Springfield, Mass.

I ENJOYED the article on home labs. However, the real challenge for the home chemist is when an actual discovery is made. While developmental money is always hard to find, it is almost impossible for the home chemist to find financing.

The research institutes are tied up with nondisclosure agreements from their benefactors. The university system is generally interested in developing its own research. Many of the government grants require an affiliation with an educational institution. What's a successful home chemist to do?

Lawrence D. Conant
Clinton, Mass.

THERE MAY BE a solution for some chemists and others who would like to do research, as a hobby or even as a business, in a more acceptable manner than in their basement, garage, or shop. When I was in the service, a facility was set up for hobbies such as photography with developers, enlargers, and darkrooms. I believe something similar could be set up for researchers.

However, one needs to go through several hurdles to set up such a facility. First are all the regulations that need to be met. Thankfully, neither the Department of Environmental Quality nor the Environmental Protection Agency is really concerned about research laboratories, per se. Mainly, one needs to meet local electrical, plumbing, fire and safety (hazardous materials), and sewage requirements.

These may vary according to city, county, or state, but are generally about the same. Our county in Oregon allows for three different zoning areas where research laboratories are acceptable. However, I have found it difficult to find a facility small enough, for example 750 to 1,000 sq ft, available for just one person at a reasonable price.

This and other problems can be resolved by having a group of researchers come together and form a laboratory facility. This has several advantages: A special laboratory could accommodate both a hobby and/or a start-up business. It would eliminate the need for duplicating some of the laboratory resources, such as the analytical and chemical storage. The size of the property or facility needed would be more readily available, and researchers could work independently or as a group.

The laboratory organization could be handled in several ways to provide optional work projects while providing for privacy and protection of intellectual property. It is recommended that the organization be a group effort and that every researcher have a share in the ownership of the laboratory. This would stimulate more interest and help alleviate some of the liability concerns.

This approach could help a lot of hobbyists, some of the unemployed, and retirees who still want to be active at some level. It probably will not help those who have specialized interests, are very concerned about privacy, or just want to do it alone. But it would increase research motivation and innovation in the U.S. if research laboratories could be set up in or around major cities.

Jon Potts
Molalla, Ore.

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