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Toward a safer, more effective method for preserving museum specimens

November 3, 2008 -- Some of the most fascinating creatures ever to inhabit the Earth can be seen today only in the form of preserved museum specimens. Researchers now are reporting progress toward a safer, more effective method of preserving these precious biological specimens in order to prolong their study and enjoyment for future generations, according to an article scheduled for the Nov. 3 issue of Chemical & Engineering News, ACS’ weekly newsmagazine. 

In the article, C&EN Assistant Editor Carmen Drahl notes that the most widely-used substances for long-term museum conservation are solutions of alcohols, such as ethanol, and formalin, a dilute solution of formaldehyde. Although used for centuries as effective preservatives, these solutions have several disadvantages. For example, alcohol is highly flammable and discolors specimens, while formalin has been linked to cancer in animals and also causes discoloration.

Scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. are now experimenting with a promising new solution to help preserve its prized 24-foot long giant squid specimen. Called “Novec,” the transparent solution is a nontoxic, non-flammable hydrofluoroether originally developed by 3M Corporation for electronics industry applications. Novec works by forming a chemical envelope around already preserved specimens, much like repelling water from a car’s surface by applying a fresh coat of wax. Novec does not get cloudy over time, and unlike traditional preservatives, it protects specimens from color changes. Thus, the Smithsonian’s giant squid has become an ongoing experiment in modern preservation methods. “We’re very interested in seeing how it will all turn out,” says one researcher.

News release courtesy of American Chemical Society  

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