I currently work in the field of metallosupramolecular chemistry. Supramolecular chemistry in general deals with the chemistry beyond (“supra”) the molecule — with interactions between molecules in larger assemblies. “Metallo” simply refers to our preference to direct and design our supramolecular chemistry by use of bonds between metal ions and organic molecules we call ligands. An aim of supramolecular chemistry is to design complex aggregates that are difficult to access by molecule-focused chemistry. Instead of the step-by-step method employed by many synthetic chemists, we rely upon self-assembly. This is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: we, the chemists, provide the starting materials and the right conditions, and the forces of nature do the rest. From relatively simple starting materials, we can then generate (relatively) huge, complex assemblies within days or weeks that would take months by step-by-step synthesis.
The problem with this is the unpredictability of nature. As much as we would love for chemistry to work out the way we want it to every time — just as with life — it often doesn’t. The exact interactions between our metal ions and ligands can be very difficult to predict because of the number of possibilities that exist for self-assembled compounds. There are often at least a handful of different results accessible with very small variation in reaction conditions — and others that we may not know of because of their energetically unfavourable nature. We may know what exactly we are targeting, but we almost always have to do a significant amount of fine-tuning before we ever get there: everything from trying different metals, subtly different ligands, solvents, counter-ions, crystallisation techniques and so forth. Even if there are only two components in the reaction mixture, the ligand and metal, the possibilities for trial are still numerous. The more variables you add, the more difficult your job of fine-tuning your system becomes.
The way we deal with this is to simply run as many attempts of different variations of the conditions as possible. This is where the vials come in. Many people are aware of the classic chemistry glassware: conical flasks, beakers and test tubes, for some. In our lab, though, the star of the show is the simple glass vial. Glass vials are inexpensive, so they are plentiful even in a lab full of glassware-hoarders. We can conduct even tens of experiments at a time and nobody is going to grumble about it. Because of their costlessness, they are also essentially disposable if a crystallisation attempt goes awry and the residue can’t be cleaned off. They are small (the ones pictured only take up to 10 mL of solvent), so milligram scale experiments — which we conduct regularly — are feasible. Their small size also means we can hide them in a cupboard for a year so that those more difficult to access compounds can form while we completely forget about them.
In my opinion, there is no better friend for the metallosupramolecular chemist than the glass vial — except maybe the x-ray diffractometer, but that is a different story altogether.
You can contact me in the comments, via e-mail at email@example.com or find me on Twitter as @Lady_Beaker, where I tweet about the daily life of a PhD student in chemistry.
And now, here is the picture from my trip I promised: