I hate the high cost of research lab materials / equipment, especially when the underlying principles are pretty simple and mundane. For example, I’ve used blue LEDs and light-filtering sunglasses to visualize DNA with SYBR Safe. And I’ve used a mirrorless digital camera paired with a Python script to visualize Western blots.
Well, this time around I was thinking about vacuum concentration. Many of the lab-spaces I’ve been around have had speed-vacs accessible, though I’ve never really used them since I don’t ever really need to lyophilize or concentrate aqueous materials. Though the other day, we had some DNA that was 1.5 to 2-fold less concentrated then we needed for submission to a company, and I was reluctant to ethanol precipitate or column-concentrate the sample at the risk of losing some of the total yield. Thus, became curious about taking advantage of vacuum concentration.
So the lab already has built-in vacuum lines, so I just needed a vessel to serve as a vacuum chamber. I bought this 2-quart chamber from Amazon for $40, and started seeing what rates of evaporation I see if I leave 200uL of ddH2O in an open 1.5mL tube out on the bench, or if I instead leave it in the vacuum chamber.
The measurements of vacuums are either in “inches of mercury”, starting at 0″ Hg, which is atmospheric pressure, to 29.92″ Hg, which is a perfect vacuum (so no air left). As you can see, the built in vacuum lines at work top out at ~ 21″ Hg, so somewhat devoid of air, yes, but far from a perfect vacuum. I even did a test where I put in a beeping lab timer into it, and while the vacuum chamber did make it a lot quieter, it was far from completely silent, like the vacuum chamber exhibit at the Great Lakes Science Center achieves (here’s the Peeps version). But what does it do for vacuum concentrating liquid? Here’s a graph of the results, when performed at room temperature.
So the same sample in the vacuum is clearly evaporating much faster. I can make a linear model of the relationship between time and amount of sample lost (which is the line in the above plot), and it looks like the water is evaporating at about 1% (or 2 uL) per hour in atmospheric conditions (oh the bench), while it’s evaporating at about 2% (or 4 uL) per hour in the vacuum chamber. Thus, leaving the liquid in the vacuum chamber for 24 hours resulted in half the volume, or presumably, a 2-fold concentration of the original sample.
Clearly, this is not a speedvac. If I understand it correctly, speedvacs also increase temperature to speed up the evaporation process. I could presumably recreate that by putting a heating block under the vacuum chamber, but I haven’t gotten around to trying that yet. There also is no centrifuge. While I could probably modify and fit one of my Lego minicentrifuges inside, the speed of evaporation at room temp has been slow enough that everything has stayed on the bottom of the tube anyway, so it’s not really a worry so far. At some point, I’ll also perform a number of comparison at 4*C as well (since the vacuum chamber is so small, I can just put it in my double-deli lab fridge), which may make more sense for slowly concentrating more sensitive samples.
Overall, for a $40 strategy to achieve faster evaporation, this doesn’t seem too bad. In the future, if we need to concentrate a DNA sample 2-fold or so, maybe it’s worth just leaving it in the vacuum chamber overnight. Furthermore, the control sample is kind of interesting to consider, as it’s now defined how fast samples left uncapped on the bench may evaporate (I suppose I’ll try this with capped samples at some point as well, which will presumably evaporate a little bit slower). Same thing with samples kept in the fridge, which are also evaporating at a slow but definable rate. After all, “everything is quantifiable“.
1/25/2023 Update: In explaining this as a potential option, I used the word “slow-vac” which is good name for this. Time to trademark it! Though other people were onto this name a while back so maybe they did (obviously they didn’t).