Piston-Driven Air Displancement Pipettes
Piston-Driven Air Displacement Pipettes
These are the most accurate and precise pipettes. They are more commonly used in biology, though they are commonly used by chemists as well. The plastic pipette tips are designed for aqueous solutions, and are not recommended for use with organic solvents which may dissolve the plastic.
These pipettes operate by piston-driven air displacement. A vacuum is generated by the vertical travel of a metal or ceramic piston within an airtight sleeve. As the piston moves upward, driven by the depression of the plunger, a vacuum is created in the space left vacant by the piston. Air from the tip rises to fill the space left vacant, and the tip air is then replaced by the liquid, which is drawn up into the tip and thus available for transport and dispensing elsewhere.
Sterile technique prevents liquid from coming into contact with the pipette. Instead, the liquid is drawn into and dispensed from a disposable pipette tip which is changed between transfers. Depressing the tip ejector button removes the tip, which is cast off without being handled by the operator and disposed of safely in an appropriate container.
The plunger is depressed to both draw up and dispense the liquid. Normal operation consists of depressing the plunger button to the first stop while the pipette is held in the air. The tip is then submerged in the liquid to be transported and the plunger is released in a slow and even manner. This draws the liquid up into the tip. The instrument is then moved to the desired dispensing location. The plunger is again depressed to the first stop, and then to the second stop, or 'blowout', position. This action will fully evacuate the tip and dispense the liquid. In an adjustable pipette, the volume of liquid contained in the tip is variable; it can be changed via a dial or other mechanism, depending on the model. Some pipettes include a small window which displays the currently selected volume.
Certain considerations should be observed to ensure maximum accuracy and repeatability:
Operator consistency is paramount to repeatable operation. The necessity of operator practice and development of good pipetting practices and habits is absolute. Light guided pipetting aides are used to help reduce errors and speed up liquid handling protocols.
- When drawing up liquid the tip should be dipped 3 to 5 mm below the surface of the liquid, always at a 90 degree angle.
- When dispensing the pipette should be held at a 45 degree angle, and the tip placed against the side of the receiving vessel. Glass vessels are preferred; the surface tension of the glass provides additional torsion that results in complete evacuation of the tip.
- The tip must never be wiped off or blotted in any way, even from the exterior, while liquid is in the tip. These actions tend to attract and thus bleed off some of the liquid, resulting in decreased accuracy and repeatability.
- A dry tip should always be pre-wetted by drawing up and dispensing the chosen volume a minimum of three times. This action reduces the surface tension on the inside walls of the tip and also provides the proper level of inter-tip humidity, which reduces evaporation of the sample liquid.
- Most pipettes are calibrated "to deliver" (TD) and not "to contain" (TC). If they are TD pipettes they should not be rinsed after they have delivered their contents. If the pipette were calibrated TC it should be rinsed to obtain the correct amount of material. If the fluid to be measured is quite viscous or sticky (such as glycerol solutions) the pipette must be calibrated and in this case the outside of the tip must be carefully wiped with a lint free tissue to remove the adhering liquid - while being careful to not touch the opening of the pipette tip, which may require some practice. Accuracy in delivering liquids with high or low viscosity may require a "positive displacement" pipettor, which is quite distinct from an air displacement pipettor.
- For maximum accuracy, and especially necessary when calibrating the pipette, relative humidity in the ambient environment should be maintained between 50% and 75%, and in no case should the humidity be allowed to dip below 50%. This limits the rate of sample evaporation which can cause significant errors, especially at lower volumes.
The importance of operator skill cannot be overstated. A high-quality, well-calibrated pipette in the hand of an uninterested or untrained operator is an unreliable instrument. Additionally, there are four factors that can reduce the accuracy and repeatability of even highly-skilled operators, and these factors must be counteracted if optimal accuracy is to be achieved:
- Heat from the operator's hand is absorbed through the handle of the instrument and transferred to the metallic components inside. If the pipette is operated continuously for a prolonged period of time this heat buildup becomes significant, causing the internal components to expand and changing the interplay between components. This reduces the consistency, accuracy, and repeatability of the instrument. The volume dispensed is dependent on the sizes of the piston and the springs that cause its travel. As these change in size the volume dispensed changes also. This effect is more pronounced in low-volume instruments. Additionally, the expansion of a metallic component that interacts with a non-metallic one that does not expand as readily in the presence of heat may cause the instrument to seem to stick, hang up, or react more slowly. Pipettes with thin handles are particularly susceptible to this phenomenon. Plumper handles are both more ergonomic and less likely to suffer from heat transfer problems. The best technique for maximum accuracy is to employ multiple pipettes and rotate them often, storing them between uses in a stand that holds them vertically.
- Operator fatigue is an often-overlooked but crucial component when seeking maximal accuracy and repeatability. Human beings are not robots, and repetitive motions cause stress in human joints and muscles. Even a well-trained and experienced operator will see a decrease in accuracy and repeatability as length of time on the job increases. It is for this reason that pipette calibration service providers that are dedicated to excellence limit the number of pipettes that can be calibrated by an individual technician to a maximum daily number. Each pipette, and each customer, deserves a high level of care in the treatment of the instrument. Additionally, some dedicated professionals train themselves to pipette ambidextrously, allowing them to reduce arm and finger strain by alternating hands. Another solution is choosing an electronic pipettor which significantly reduces hand fatigue. Once the operating button is touched the pipettor operates always the same way producing user independent accuracy and precision.
- Long-term pipette operation can lead to repetitive strain injuries (RSI), such as carpal tunnel syndrome. These disorders may cause significant reductions in accuracy and repeatability by altering the proper pipetting techniques that are crucial to achieving optimal accuracy. Preventive measures include learning to pipette with both hands and alternating their usage, taking frequent breaks while pipetting, and choosing the most ergonomic pipette available. Instruments with plumper handles are generally superior in this regard. On the other hand, electronic pipettors which operate with a light touch reduce RSI significantly.
- Letting the pipette "rest" for at least one minute after a volume change is made. This does not apply to single-volume instruments, also called set volume or fixed volume pipettes. A change in the dispensed volume of an adjustable pipette involves modifying the internal tensioning of a spring that governs the piston's travel distance. Springs subjected to changing tensioning behave more smoothly and consistently when they are allowed to enjoy an interval of rest to settle into their new configuration. A pipette that is left idle for at least one minute after a volume adjustment will perform more accurately than one that is pressed into service prematurely. This is especially important when calibrating a pipette.