Research is in many ways a subject of debate. Ideas are presented with evidence and through repetition and discussion they are tested and examined. Every discovery or methodology in science is subject to inquiry, dissection and disagreement because that is at the very core, the point of the scientific method. There are few constants (even mathematical constants are the subject of much debate) and even fewer unanimous agreements.

One exception to this is that scientifically water is obviously the best lab liquid.

Now I don’t make that claim lightly. To give anything the lofty award of best in state of matter is quite an accolade so obviously I do so with appropriate consideration and thought. It’s also something I come to with a lifetime’s experience as a user, consumer and balloon filler of water.

First off water saves researcher lives! Which is I think a strong start for any best of anything contender. Water clearly has a role in supporting life, putting out fires etc. but to be best-lab-liquid you have to do more, and water is relied on to do so much more. Water is the go-to answer to the part of a risk assessment where you spill something dangerous and are inevitably recommended to “dilute with lots of water”.

It’s a bit counter-intuitive that when you spill something the first thing you do is make the spill bigger with water but that is the brilliant power of water to prevent people from accidentally wiping up concentrated gook.

Most labs even have showers that are specifically designed for washing researchers down if they spill something concentrated gook on themselves. Even though most of the showers are filled with more rust than water they are sometimes the only thing stopping a researcher from getting a super cool-looking giant hole in their leg.

Secondly, water helps with waste disposal. We’ve actually written an entire article about the phrase “down the sink with lots of water” which is the pinnacle of a lot of labs’ hazardous waste disposal systems. But just because it gets misused a lot doesn’t make it a bad idea per se and if anything is a sign of just how good water is for getting rid of small amounts of complex lab waste that it is often the default answer.

Since we wrote that article a number of lab-sink disposal systems have been developed which take “down the sink with lots of water” and add UV sterilisation, thermal degradation and a lot of filtration. Which, is a great addon but even those systems are nothing without waste helping water.

Thirdly, water helps make so many cool things sometimes just by being cool. Because not only does water save lives and dispose of waste it also helps make the things that threaten our lives and needs disposing of!

Without water biochemistry labs would be filled with many bottles of off-white power waiting for a solvent. Without water, chemistry labs would have solutions sat in empty temperature baths connected to distillation columns capable of separating nothing. Without water, physics labs would have overheating lasers and some very dirty components. Without water, geologists would have… umm dustier rocks?

Lastly, you need water to make coffee. There’s no more to that argument as I think it stands on its own, albeit with a slightly twitchy wide awake look.

So, for all of the above reasons and more water is unequivocally the best lab liquid. Others come close, Ethanol is a strong contender and Oobleck certainly gets some points for being the go-to science demo, but nothing can touch the long list of things we have to thank water for. So raise a glass of to celebrate this amazing liquid, but remember no drinking the lab, pour it down the sink and don’t forget to wash it away with plenty of water.

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3 Comments

Vicky Howe · 22 September 2023 at 15:11

Once, after an unfortunate incident involving a miniscule amount of spilt bromophenol blue and some misguided use of ethanol, we also came to the conclusion that water is the superior liquid. Sometimes being an inferior solvent is a good thing…

    Matthew (@MCeeP) · 22 September 2023 at 15:13

    I don’t want to admit water is inferior at anything… but in this case I’ll allow it 😉

      Vicky Howe · 22 September 2023 at 15:44

      All I can say is that our lab was very blue by the time we gave up on the ethanol. Turns out a little bit of bromophenol blue goes a surprisingly long way

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