When I started at Cranfield Univeristy I had a brilliant idea. I wanted to look at my nice glass slides on the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM). I’d put some interesting chemicals on the glass and I was quite keen to see what they actually looked like. Besides, pretty pictures are an automatic +10 to any publication. However, what I hadn’t banked on was that the prized AFM wasn’t a regular AFM, it was a zombie AFM!

Zombie lab equipment is the scourge of many labs. Pieces of equipment that are not broken but not used either. Zombie lab equipment exists in a half alive half dead state, somehow clinging on to its space on the bench and no matter how many bits fall off, it is seemingly un-killable.


Pieces of zombie lab equipment come in many forms but this handy spotter’s guide can help you find them.

The old treasured zombie is normally at least 2x decades old, beige, covered in dust and comes with a box of floppy disks. These are the hardest ones to get rid of as they come with years of nostalgia and emotional attachment for their creator/owner. Once upon a time they were probably the shining crown of the lab but have since been replaced/superseded, however the owner swears blind that it works better, for some obscure reason… If only they can find a computer than runs Windows 3.1.

White elephant zombies are easier to spot. It’s normally a very large, obvious piece of modern equipment that inexplicably no one in the lab wants to talk about or make eye contact with. This was normally bought with amazing intentions, often quite recently, however for various reasons it couldn’t actually do the job it was bought for and now sits unused. Not enough time has passed for anyone to admit a mistake in purchasing it so it sits there impassively, being a waste of funding.

The re-recycled zombie is easy to confuse with the old treasured zombie as they are often old looking and thick with dust. However these are far worse as they are often quite new zombies that have been “saved” from a skip. They were probably zombies in someone else’s lab that some bright spark thought your lab could use. However, somewhat inevitably the equipment sits like the zombie it is, just taking up space.

A transition zombie is more of a grey area than the others. This is a piece of equipment that hasn’t quite gone full zombie yet, as it is still technically doing its job – but only barely. These are bits of equipment that cling on to the last spark of life by being annoying to operate but functional enough to stop them being replaced. This zombie is also the most devisive, as any user of it will beg for it to put out of its misery and allowed peaceful rest. Whereas the lab manger (who probably never uses it) will swear that it’s a fully functional, useful addition to the lab.

In my case, the AFM was a victim of staffing problems. All the people who knew how to work it had moved on to other institutes. The owner of the equipment obviously knew how brilliant it could be and didn’t want to get rid of it. So it existed as an ‘available’ resource – which was actually fairly useless without several months work and extensive manual reading (turns out AFM manuals are quite long). It had become an old treasured zombie, destined to gather dust and slowly loose any calibration it might once have had.


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1 Comment

frank Davis · 23 March 2016 at 15:03

Same thing happened with the raman, we wanted a simple raman run, but had to go to Birmingham because all the people who knew how to work our raman microscope had left

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