15 Common Laboratory Chemicals and How to Arrange Them

To operate a successful laboratory, you must select the proper chemicals to support safe and effective procedures. Depending on the goals, some chemicals will work better than others, cutting down on time, unnecessary equipment, resources, and training.

Each project may require a niche understanding of how chemicals may enhance and modify your workflow.

In this article we will examine the most common types of laboratory chemicals, along with their respective applications and safety requirements.

Common chemicals used in a laboratory and their uses

Knowledge of chemical types, including access to proper storage and handling resources can lessen the chances of chemical laboratory hazards. Depending on the characteristics of a chemical, there are distinct protocols for handling spills, contamination, or any environmental risks.

Below is a list of all the laboratory chemical types based on their hazard classification, and a brief explanation of how each chemical class might be used.

  1. Oxidizers

    These are chemical compounds that release oxygen when they react with another substance. This can be useful for water purification, bleaching of textiles, or as an oxidizing agent aiding in combustion.

    Some examples of oxidizers are nitrates, nitrites, peroxides, and perborates.

  2. Oxidizing acids

    Slightly stronger than other oxidizers, oxidizing acids contain oxygen in the anionic structure. This is particularly useful when trying to pull chlorine from hydrochloric acid. It is an effective reducing agent, which makes it ideal for cleaning up bromine or iodine spills in the lab.

    Examples of oxidizing acids are nitric acid, hydrogen peroxide, or chromic acid.

  3. Flammable liquids

    Although this chemical class distinctly has combustion and flammability risk, there are many unique applications for use. Many of these chemicals are solvents and can be used in wet lab techniques, including chromatography, spectrometry, and chemical synthesis. These compounds can be capable of denaturing proteins, assisting in breaking down and separating other chemicals.

    Examples of flammable liquids are methanol, acetone, ethanol, hexane, and toluene.

  4. Inorganic bases

    Metal hydroxides or inorganic bases are used to precipitate tests. A dilute form of sodium hydroxide can be used in tests for metal ions. For instance, copper sulfate solution reacts with a small amount of sodium hydroxide, precipitating and forming copper hydroxide and sodium sulfate. The copper hydroxide salt can then be used in further preparations of synthesized salts.

    Some examples of inorganic bases include sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide.

  5. Organic bases

    Amines, also known as organic bases, are used in medicine, photography processing, and as a component in synthesizing rocket propellants and insecticides. They are polar ammonia derivatives and can form hydrogen bonds acting as bases and nucleophiles.

    Examples of organic bases are ethanolamine and tributylamine.

  6. Acidic flammable liquids

    These combination acids and flammable substances are used in chemical synthesis as a solvent and are commonly used in the production of esters in combination with various alcohols. Acetic acid is used as an organic catalyst in several chemical processes.

    Some acidic flammable liquids include glacial acetic acid, acetic acid, and formic acid.

  7. Basic flammable liquids

    Basic flammable liquids like dimethylamine are used to synthesize and manufacture industrial compounds and materials. They are often a precursor to a more complex compound, reacting with other chemicals to complete processes like the sulfur vulcanization of rubber. They can be useful in producing household product ingredients like soap or common emulsifying agents.

    Examples of basic flammable liquids are triethylamine, dimethylamine, and sodium methylate.

  8. Organic acids

    Commonly used in analytical chemistry and laboratory testing, organic acids function as a compound that helps test and identify imbalances occurring in a biological sample.

    Some examples of organic acids include butyric acid and pentanoic acid.

  9. Inorganic acids

    This category of chemicals has extensive applications ranging from the purification of compounds like petroleum to the production of nitroglycerin. Inorganic acids are mostly used in the synthesis of fatty acids via distillation; however, there are many chemicals synthesizes that can be performed using organic acids.

    The most popular inorganic acids are hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, phosphoric acid, and hydrofluoric acid.

  10. Poisons

    This extensive class of toxic chemicals must be handled with caution as they are dangerous to handle. Many are available in aqueous solution; however, they are also available as mixtures or pure salts. Uses can range from buffering DNA extraction, recovering DNA from polyacrylamide gels, or synthesis of products like adhesives.

    Some common toxic chemicals are acrylamide, formaldehyde, phenol, and lead acetate.

  11. Cyanides

    Cyanides are highly toxic compounds used in stabilizing electron ions during electroplating. These chemicals can also be used in producing jewelry and mining gold, as they work efficiently as a chemical extractor separating metals from ore.

    Examples of cyanides include sodium cyanide, potassium cyanide, and calcium cyanide.

  12. Pyrophoric

    Pyrophoric substances are liquids, solids, or gases that will spontaneously ignite in air at or below 130°F (54.4°C) within five minutes of exposure. They are used in research to catalyze specific reactions and will often be incorporated into final products.

    Some uses include dividing fine metals like bismuth and zinc, or even in the hydrogenation catalyst of palladium on carbon. It is also important to avoid storage near areas where water-reactive chemicals are present to prevent unsafe interactions.

    Some common pyrophoric chemicals are metal alkyls such as methyllithium or trimethylaluminum.

  13. Water-reactive

    Water-reactive chemicals can come in the form of metal powders or liquid reagents and are known to release hazardous or flammable gas when exposed to water or moisture in the lab. Some alkyl metals in this class are used for research purposes for their interactions with other compounds and the distinctly short half-life of some compounds like francium.

    Metal phosphides are particularly notable for their use in oxygen evolution reactions, water splitting, and photocatalytic conversion. This is due to their conductivity and electrocatalysis properties. This use as a semiconductor has advanced research and development of Li-S (Lithium-sulfur) batteries.

    A few examples of water-reactive chemicals are magnesium, zinc, cobalt, potassium borohydride, and calcium phosphide.

  14. Water-reactive acids

    Frequently used as coatings for silicon and glass surfaces, chlorosilanes fall within the class of water-reactive acids. Acid halides are also categorized in this class of chemicals and can be used as intermediates to synthesize organic compounds. When combining an acid halide with water, it forms carboxylic acid, a compound used in the industrial process to synthesize acetic acid.

    Examples of water-reactive acids include dimethyldichlorosilane, and ethyltrichlorosilane.

  15. Non-hazardous (non-regulated chemicals)

    Lastly, there are compounds known as non-hazardous chemicals that have no known risks associated with handling or storage. This includes buffers, surfactants, ion exchange resins, culture media, pump oil, and salts. It is possible to find toxic preservatives (like mercury or azide salts in buffers) in some non-hazardous products, making it critical to check all safety labeling before use.

    These compounds are commonplace in most laboratories and will often be specified based on your unique protocols.

How to arrange chemicals in a laboratory

The primary objective of arranging chemicals is to prioritize safety by avoiding unintended chemical reactions. This requires separating chemicals based on their hazard classifications and utilizing chemical storage cabinets designed to prevent laboratory accidents or flame hazards.

When arranging chemicals in the lab, there are some guidelines that will help prevent chemical accidents and optimize efficiency:

  • Label all chemical containers clearly, including the date it was received.
  • Plan to have storage space designated to each chemical, some items may be stored together in a cabinet while others may have hazard risks and need to be separated. There are chemical compatibility charts available that can be displayed in the laboratory as an extra precaution. For example, avoid storing oxidizers and combustible chemicals as they may produce a dangerous reaction when exposed or spilled. To learn more about setting up chemical cabinets and arranging chemicals by class, visit our chemical safety storage page
  • Ensure ventilated cabinets for any volatile or odoriferous chemicals.
  • Flammable liquids must be stored in approved flame cabinets with only compatible materials.
  • Corrosive materials require corrosion resistant secondary containers to protect cabinets from any leaks or spills.
  • If your laboratory requires temperature controlled chemical storage, make sure all refrigerators and freezers used for chemical storage are properly labeled. No food should be stored in chemical storage. When storing flammable materials in cold storage, it is recommended to use a spark-free or explosion-proof refrigerator.
  • Do not store chemicals on the work bench, this space should be reserved for only chemicals currently in use.
  • Avoid storing anything on top of cabinets to ensure there is substantial clearance around all sprinkler heads to keep the fire suppression system operating functionally.
  • Only store chemicals using accepted cabinets and shelving. Storing chemicals in fume hoods, on the floor, or exposed to environmental stress could interfere with the function of your equipment and lead to hazardous spills or leaks.
  • Large, heavy chemical containers should be stored around shoulder level or below.

Avantor® provides high-quality chemicals and storage supplies to support your laboratory

Laboratory chemicals are essential to a well-equipped and productive workspace. They are the building blocks of innovation and can provide fast and effective methods to make life-changing scientific discoveries.

Understanding the classifications of common chemicals used in the laboratory will enable your team to work efficiently and safely – reducing waste and avoiding chemical accidents in the workspace.

To learn more about laboratory chemicals contact your Avantor representative about our products and resources to support your unique needs.