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What happens to old scientific instruments?

Inside the secondary market for specialized laboratory equipment

by Laurel Oldach
June 14, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 18


Secondhand instruments by the numbers

$2 billion:

Estimated global sales of used lab equipment per year

$50.7 million:

Estimated value of equipment Seeding Labs has distributed since 2002


Starting bid on a confocal microscope recently listed on the GovDeals website

Ian Lightcap had a problem. The core facility director at the University of Notre Dame had a lot of aging equipment on his hands and a plan to upgrade it—but no plan for what to do with the old instruments after the new ones came in.

Take a high-resolution X-ray diffractometer, used for characterization of new crystalline materials, for example. When it was purchased in 2016, it was worth $275,000. But now, with its optical alignment and therefore its accuracy slipping, it was taking up space that Lightcap needed for a newer, more accurate model.

But the university didn’t want the older machine to end up in a landfill. The instrument had been a big capital investment. Surely it still had value to someone—somewhere. Didn’t it?

Researchers depend on their instruments to produce reliable data. Innumerable hours of grant writing, shopping, and installation go into obtaining new instruments. But less attention is paid to these expensive specialty instruments after they are superseded by a new state of the art. Lightcap’s conundrum sheds light on a fascinating secondary market—one that inspires a whole lot of used-car analogies and that is poised to grow as manufacturers embrace a circular economy.

Sell, donate, or scrap?

Lightcap’s diffractometer was a harbinger of things to come. Notre Dame’s Materials Characterization Facility was set up in 2011, and so it has a fleet of some 25 or 30 large instruments approaching the end of their useful lives.

A panoramic photo of a core laboratory shows between 5 and 10 benchtop and freestanding instruments.
Credit: Ian Lightcap
The University of Notre Dame’s Materials Characterization Facility includes a high resolution X-ray diffractometer (gray and blue, center left) that will soon be replaced.

The university’s approach to dealing with surplus equipment is “a little ad hoc right now,” Lightcap says. But he wonders whether that may be changing with the rise of shared facilities like his. Core labs make instruments available to more researchers, often extend their useful life-span by making maintenance someone’s job, and centralize the headache of dealing with outdated instruments.

Lightcap recently developed a decision guide to help him move along old instruments but keep them out of landfills. He begins by asking whether a piece of equipment still works. If not, the solution is simple: salvage any costly parts that might come in handy later, and send the rest for electronic recycling.

But, he says, some of the equipment he retires is not broken, just outdated compared with newer instruments. In that case, Lightcap weighs his options. He might keep an older instrument in his facility as a backup, if space allows. Or he could try to find another home for it on campus, donate it to another educational institution, or sell it.

The used-mass-spec lot

According to Michael Tice, a senior vice president at the market research company Strategic Directions International (SDI), used lab equipment accounts for around 2–3% of global lab equipment sales, or roughly $2 billion globally per year.

Some old lab equipment finds its way into a university’s surplus-property channels and is handled by a team that disposes of everything from office furniture to oscilloscopes. These pieces often end up posted at eye-poppingly low prices on general-purpose auction sites, such as eBay. GovDeals, a liquidator for government and educational institutions in the US, recently listed a confocal microscope for sale in Lexington, Kentucky, for $10; a fluorescent automated cell sorter in Iowa City for $25; and an ultra-low-temperature freezer in Tampa, Florida, for $120. The buyer is responsible for collecting and moving these bargains—and finds out upon collection whether they work.

A screenshot from the auction website GovDeals shows a listing in the Laboratory Equipment category Microscopes. A photo shows a jumble of a dozen or more simple light microscopes in a warehouse-scale cardboard box. The listing had received three bids and was at $108 when the screenshot was taken.
Credit: Laurel Oldach/C&EN
Surplus instruments, like these light microscopes, sometimes end up listed on auction websites such as GovDeals and eBay.

A somewhat less-risky secondary market offers refurbished lab equipment, instruments that come with certification that they’re functional. Much like a used-car dealer, companies like American Laboratory Trading, GenTech Scientific, LabXchange, LabX, and Conquer Scientific trade in secondhand analytical and medical equipment. They serve as liquidators for labs that are going out of business, contract to sell equipment when a big company makes regular upgrades to its fleet, make one-off purchases through their “sell your equipment” websites, and often deal with universities through preferred-vendor arrangements.

According to Yvette Pagano, chief commercial officer at sister companies GenTech Scientific and Conquer Scientific, her companies do brisk business in smaller items such as plate readers and tabletop centrifuges. But their core business is in the sale and service of more-complex instruments, such as mass spectrometry and chromatography systems that the company inspects, refurbishes, certifies, and installs. While they are more lucrative, these bigger-ticket items can take more time to move. Pagano says that the business ebbs and flows, reminding her of her time in car sales. Used equipment boomed during the pandemic, as supply chains frayed; these days, things are a little slower.

Alexis Gonen, a senior product specialist in mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography at American Laboratory Trading, says her role includes not only includes matching buyers to an instrument but also connecting customers to third parties who can install the item, provide maintenance, and even train scientists on it. She says the lower prices let underfunded labs obtain equipment that would otherwise be out of reach.

SDI’s Tice writes in an email that rather than leave those labs to the secondhand dealers, equipment manufacturers have recently begun to value them as a market opportunity. “There has also been increasing interest by the original manufacturers to refurbish and sell their own factory-reconditioned equipment.”

Decisions, Decisions
Ian Lightcap developed this decision guide to help determine what to do with old lab equipment from the core facility he manages at the University of Notre Dame.
What should I do with old lab equipment?
Does it still work?

Trading up

Many manufacturers offer to buy back old equipment from customers shopping for new pieces. Some of these trade-ins, though, seem to be geared mostly toward making a sale. Lightcap says that he once negotiated for a trade-in credit when buying a new piece of equipment, but when he asked where to send the older instrument, the vendor said not to bother. In that instance, he says, it seemed that landing the sale was more valuable to the manufacturer than getting the old instrument back to resell.

Other companies have formal programs to refurbish, certify, and resell their own instruments at a discount. For example, a prospective seller of a used Agilent Technologies instrument for chromatography, spectrometry, or spectroscopy can consult an Agilent website to learn exactly what its trade-in value is.

The company’s general manager and associate vice president for certified pre-owned instruments, Aimee Whaley, says customers can recoup the money as a discount on a replacement instrument, as credit to spend on Agilent consumables or service, or in cash. She adds that unlike secondhand dealers, her team also updates the installed software and provides a license.

Whaley says that for Agilent, used equipment is a way to build brand loyalty among labs that are starting up. When small companies grow or scientists move on to settings with more cash to spend, they often want to stick with the instrument system they know. “It’s sort of bringing customers into the fold,” she says.

Some companies will even buy back their competitors’ equipment. Chief scientific officer Shawn Levy of Element Biosciences, a small company trying to gain ground in the DNA-sequencing market, says that occasionally customers will ask about trading in a competitor’s sequencer to help finance their first Element machine. “It’s like when you trade in a car,” he says—but instead of reselling these instruments, Element breaks them down for parts.

International donations

Trade-in schemes are also a way to demonstrate corporate responsibility. For example, Agilent’s buyback program is a way for the firm to demonstrate its commitment to a more circular economy. “The sustainability play is a huge one . . . which we’ve just seen grow,” Whaley says. But despite her team’s best forecasting efforts, some refurbished instruments don’t sell. In some of those cases, Agilent moves the surplus through a partnership with a nonprofit called Seeding Labs that delivers donated lab equipment and supplies to labs in lower- and middle-income countries.

A group of seven people unloading boxes from a box truck and reading their labels.
Credit: Courtesy of Paul Osamundiamen/Bells University of Technology
A shipment of laboratory equipment from Seeding Labs arrives at Bells University of Technology in Ota, Nigeria.

The nonprofit was founded in 2008 after several years as a student project. According to Jennifer Raymond, director of corporate relations, it sends out 8–12 shipping containers of lab equipment annually and has made a total of $50.7 million worth of donations. To the original equipment owners, Raymond says, the value of donating in this way varies. Some companies have corporate-responsibility reasons to donate old equipment; others value the tax write-off.

For recipients, the instruments can enable both research and teaching. For example, according to Seeding Labs, a program in Tanzania saw student attrition halved after it received a shipment that let professors offer hands-on experience.

The criticism of such initiatives is that too often donations are made to get rid of unwanted objects rather than to benefit recipients. To avoid this problem, Seeding Labs never sends out instruments unasked for. Instead, it gives awardees a window to shop its inventory.

But Oladele Oyelakin, an environmental chemist who heads the division of physical and natural sciences at the University of the Gambia, says that Seeding Labs’ program fee, a cost-sharing measure, puts the scheme out of reach for some prospective recipients.

If organizations are giving equipment, it would be nice [if] . . . provision for spare parts and service and maintenance is factored in.
Oladele Oyelakin, environmental chemist, University of the Gambia

The nonprofit judges applications—which Oyelakin says are competitive—partly based on the odds of productive use of donated equipment. One factor is whether a recipient will be able to keep the equipment running over time. For some labs, that is a tall order.

Oyelakin studies water quality and has an interest in food safety as well. The field equipment he uses was a gift from a collaborator who visited in 2016. While he appreciates having things like a pH meter, finding funding to replace the calibration buffer was a challenge.

Oyelakin would like to study environmental exposure to more complex chemicals, such as pesticides and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Back in graduate school in Dakar, Senegal, he used a fluorimeter to measure such contaminants in water. But when it went on the blink, the closest place to get it repaired was more than 3,500 km away. Shipping alone was cost prohibitive, even before the repair was quoted out.

Similarly, getting a service contract or spare parts is impractical for his lab now, in the Gambia. “When the equipment breaks down, most of the time it cannot be fixed,” Oyelakin says. “If organizations are giving equipment,” he says, “it would be nice [if] . . . provision for spare parts and service and maintenance is factored in.”

Domestic donations

Not all donations go abroad. In the US, there are also many donation programs at university and government labs geared toward domestic educational institutions. For example, the program at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) offers used instruments free to universities and colleges. Other programs from the US Department of Energy offer equipment to both high schools and state agencies.

A man in blue jeans and work boots stands in front of a shelving unit in a warehouse. It makes him look small. Some nearby pallets hold recognizable scientific equipment, others are wrapped in plastic and labeled "Fermi."
Credit: Dan Garisto/Fermilab
Scott Borton, the facilities director at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, stands in a warehouse filled with old scientific equipment.

According to Scott Borton, facility supervisor at Fermilab, the program donated 380 assets from January 2016 to January 2020. But donations dropped in 2020 and have not recovered, with just 66 pieces moved in the past 4 years. Borton speculates that part of the drop-off could be caused by changes in the management system and website used to list available equipment. Still, he thinks that the donations are appreciated. “We have heard back from people from time to time, thanking us and telling us what they’re using the equipment for,” he says.

Instruments from Fermilab that don’t move within a certain time frame are sent for electronics recycling. Borton thinks that some of them may still end up being refurbished and then put up for sale. But from the US government’s point of view, they are scrap—much like the nonworking instruments that Lightcap, the Notre Dame Materials Characterization Facility director, decommissions from the university inventory and breaks down for parts.

My priority is, I need to get it out of the space.
Ian Lightcap, director of the Materials Characterization Facility, University of Notre Dame

But not that X-ray diffractometer. When the replacement comes in, the older machine is bound for a lab just down the hall from Lightcap’s facility, which can use the instrument for lower-resolution measurements that it can still take accurately. This is a great outcome, he says, because the other lab can use it and because it saves on moving costs that would have eaten up most of the instrument’s resale value.

“Convenience is actually a huge deciding factor” when it comes to moving an instrument that no longer serves a purpose, Lightcap says. “My priority is, I need to get it out of the space.” After all, he has a research facility to run.



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