I had an experience recently that involved a frantic call from a frantic customer. "There is something wrong with the regulator on my CO2 tank," he moaned. "It stopped working and the incubator ran out of gas. All my cells are gone!"
Needless to say, it was a real tragedy for the customer. Fortunately, the precaution that would have prevented this from happening was at our disposal. Once the customer was placated and the solution explained, what began as a horrific morning segued into a good day for Middlesex Gases, myself and the customer.
First Things First
But let's take first things first. What is an incubator? It's that big thing that looks like a refrigerator and is an indispensable part of every bioresearch lab. Also, that incubator always has a carbon dioxide cylinder strapped next to it. The cell cultures stored in these incubators constitute the life's blood of every customer's research. They are invaluable, and in some cases cannot be replicated. It is not a stretch to say that a single incubator can hold $250,000 worth of cells at any one time.
So, how important is that cylinder of CO2? If the cylinder runs out, the cells die. It goes without saying, then, that a reliable source of CO2 is extremely important. Therefore, it is paramount that we, as gas suppliers, do everything we can to encourage customers to install a backup system for their CO2 to ensure continued supply of this precious commodity.
Carbon dioxide is delivered to our customers in cylinders that commonly contain 50 lb of liquid product. The liquid CO2 in that cylinder vaporizes to a pressure of approximately 838 psi, which means that the regulator on the tank will read 838 psi as long as there is liquid, regardless of how minute the quantity that remains in the tank.
Far too frequently, it happens that a customer, with a single cylinder of CO2 that is feeding his incubator, will check the pressure at the end of the day, then check out for the night. In the morning, when he returns, he may find an incubator full of useless cell cultures because the CO2 supply had been exhausted; dependence on the pressure reading was a mistake.
Ideally, a switchover manifold is the best way to avoid this problem. Sometimes, however, this solution is financially out of the customer's reach. In this case, we offer an alternative recommendation. The customer could mount the tank on a cylinder scale, add the tare weight that is stamped on the shoulder of the cylinder to the 50 lb delivered, and simply swap the cylinder out when the 50 lb is depleted to a comfortable level.
Backing Up the Backup System
Now back to the customer with the destroyed cells. I responded in person within an hour of receiving the phone call. However, I already knew what I was going to find since I had recommended a backup system for his CO2 supply twice before. I can relate several incidents, from personal experience, that have proved devastating for a customer. All with considerable research, time, and money that has been invested in a project, wasted.
In this case, I was as gentle as possible in "re-recommending" a backup system for the CO2 supply before any new cell cultures were placed in the incubator. The customer gladly purchased the recommended system, as well as a back up to the backup system.
An ironic twist, which I found difficult to believe, occurred. While I was in my car, placing the expedited order with my office, I received another call from a research facility on the other side of Boston. They had just experienced the same catastrophic loss as the one for which I was placing the order.
Again, within the hour, I visited the second customer and the earlier scenario was repeated. The second customer, just the day before, had received a shipment of cultures from Europe, worth tens of thousands of dollars, and had placed them in an incubator. All were now worthless. It was indeed a sad day for people on both sides of the pond.
I have always been a strong proponent of CO2 backup systems for incubators, but my experience that day emboldened me and inspired me to become even more diligent in recommending them to them to customers.