Fundamentals Q&A

“We really shook the pillars of heaven, didn’t we, Wang?” -Big Jack Burton, Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Some interesting bits that have come my way asking very basic questions about why I do things the way I do. I often find questioning the basic assumptions and things so common that they’re invisible reveals interesting information.

Question 1: Why do you ship BBotE in glass bottles and risk them breaking? Wouldn’t it be easier and cheaper to do it in plastic? – Marie of Ypsilanti, MI

Answer 1: A better question might be “why don’t you ship it in bags like box wine?” The reason why is flavor. I use glass because it is inert; typical bottle plastic I’ve discovered leaches into the BBotE and shifts the flavor, nevermind the eww factor. The plastic bottles are also rather difficult to clean and reuse. Glass can be cleaned for a refill and honor accumulation, but the plastic is stained forever. I’d like to encourage reuse of the bottles, and plastic runs counter to that.

Stainless steel has potential, but the vessels only get cost effective such that they don’t eclipse the BBotE itself at ridiculous volumes. Despite two particularly vocal and repeated calls (Test Subjects Misha and Sangre) we are still a long way off from the Keg O’ Caffeination. The Jug O’ Madness, a mere 4L vessel permitting musical ambitions after you’ve finished off your BBotE, is in the works.

Question 2: Do the Steins of Science have to have the worm gears on the strapping? They look clunky. – Several people, but most recently Marten of Bethesda, MD

Answer 2: When you figure out a better method to securely attach a handle that doesn’t destroy the dewar and satisfies your desire for a less clunky appearance, please let me know. Don’t get me wrong, I see your point of view and have been looking in order to satisfy the delicate aesthetic sensibilities of others, though not very hard. “Why?” you might ask. Because I rather like the look as it is.

One of the reasons I know this style of mounting works for the handle is that it also works for securing dewars in place as condensors/cold traps for big and impressive distillation setups. The Steins of Science look close to how I’m used to seeing dewars in use out in the wild.

Before you say to me “I’ve never seen a dewar mounted like that in a lab” I would ask if you’ve seen one shatter when knocked off a bench? If no, then your lab has probably gotten lucky and never broken one yet, destroying the science in progress, and scaring the bejeezus out of your fellow researchers. The learning curve is seems to be pretty steep as it is an expensive mistake you don’t want to make more than once.

Question 3: Why are the the shields on the FMJ Steins of Science aluminum and not steel or copper? Copper is sweet and a one of those with a brass handle would be hardcore Steampunk. – Paul of Oakland, CA

Answer 3: The lazy answer is that’s they way they’re manufactured and the shield is epoxied onto the glass, couldn’t change it even if I wanted to. It’s the lazy answer because it doesn’t answer the actual WHY, which is a bit more tricky.

It comes down to a matter of a trade off between protecting the dewar flask, the glass bit with a vacuum inside the metal jacket, ease of manufacturing process, and the overall weight of the completed dewar. Aluminum is quite ductile, even at the 1/16 thickness of the “rugged” style dewar; it flexes and you can easily wrap it around the glass without too much effort. Go grab a piece of sheet steel and see how easily that works (be sure to wear gloves so you don’t slice yourself to ribbons in the process). Steel is also quite a bit denser than aluminum, increasing the overall dewar weight and making survival less likely when you drop a glass vessel.

NOTE: There are dewar vessels out there made entirely out of stainless steel. They tend to be the larger transport dewars as steel is easier to work with at this size. The little stainless steel guys, by which I mean 2L, cost an arm and a leg for one that could potentially be used for a drinking vessel. The 4L ones make fantastic lemonade transports for picnics though. I’m just saying.

Native Copper - It's a long way from being a penny
Native Copper - It's a long way from being a penny

Copper, on the other hand, is quite ductile and would work just fine in place of aluminum, but it has the drawbacks of high metals cost, high density and very noticeable corrosion. But I have to admit, Paul is right, a copper jacketed stein would look boss. Can’t actually change the jacket, but I might be able to electroplate it without screwing up the dewar. Discussions about doing this are in progress but actual results may not happen for many months.

Right, time to get down to the post office and send you people the things you desperately desire.