Evolution of Tools

Like it or not, the availability of tools we can use to alter our world is always affected by current events happening on the global stage.  I’ve been involved in the architectural profession since the mid-1980’s and the design of laboratory and process environments since 1989.  Yesterday, I saw a presentation made by one of our laboratory planners related to fumehood technology.  It got me thinking about why we use the tools we use, what events cause the tools to change and why the change takes so long to evolve.

Take the standard chemical fumehood.  For as long as I’ve designed laboratories it’s been the go-to tool to protect people from hazardous experiments.  Even though today they can look pretty high-tech and sophisticated, they were pretty much just a dumb box working on ancient principals of convection, just like the fireplace in your house, right up to the oil crisis of the 1970’s.  After the oil crisis of the 1970’s engineers got serious about the fluid dynamics involved in a fumehood and focused on a tool that would use less energy.  By the mid-1980’s these hoods had reached the mainstream and were marketed as “low flow’ hoods.  By the time I started designing labs the oil crisis of the 1970’s was a distant memory and I can distinctly remember being told by engineers and owner’s safety officers to never use them.  A fumehood should be designed to protect people from hazards, not to save money.  I honestly don’t think things would have changed were it not for events affecting the world stage.

Who would have figured that something so seemingly un-related to fumehoods as the OJ Simpson trial would have had such a major effect on fumehood design.  Most people were aware that the LA crime lab had contaminated DNA samples, but didn’t have many of the details.  They used a traditional chemical fumehood to store the evidence.  A traditional fumehood works great for protecting the operator, but it does nothing to protect the sample from contamination.  Suddenly the whole world was aware that the wrong tool was used.  By the way, the right tool in this case was a Biological Safety Cabinet.  They use about a third the energy as a traditional fumehood.  Almost overnight fumehoods were replaced in Biology labs with Biological Safety Cabinets.  But more importantly there was a sudden realization that the quantity of air passed through the device did not ensure results.  By the year 2000 an independent research project had been commissioned at California Berkley to design the “Berkley Hood”.

This time, the focus was not on saving energy – it was on high performance.  By the mid-2000’s, a whole new round of commercial products were hitting the street touting their increased performance characteristics through better aerodynamic design.  Guess what?  They can effectively capture fumes at ventilation rates 40% lower than the traditional fumehood.  With gas again closing on $4.00 per gallon in the US and talk of carbon credits these tools are receiving serious consideration in every project.