A mobile laboratory, which scientists may move from location to location, is a self-sufficient laboratory. A mobile laboratory may process biological, chemical, or other data, depending on the equipment installed in it. Some mobile laboratories are mobile classrooms or teaching facilities. Often companies rent or lease mobile laboratories instead of owning one. Frequently, private laboratory and research companies use mobile laboratories to travel to the customer's location.
Most mobile laboratories are analytical laboratories that use field data to assess the environment for potential problems. For example, food safety scientists may park a mobile laboratory on or near farmland to test lettuce or other produce for biological toxins or poisonous pesticides. After disasters, such as hurricanes or floods, scientists and technicians use mobile laboratories to gather water, air, and other significant samples. Since the transportable laboratory is on site, they are able to identify health risks promptly. Many times first responders use mobile laboratories as decontamination centers.
One of the main reasons that scientists prefer to use mobile laboratories is that they can analyze critical data analysis faster than with traditional methods. Without a mobile laboratory on site, specimens are gathered and then mailed or transported to a laboratory to be processed. The time lost in transportation can be crucial in decision making. In the case of a disaster, such as an unknown chemical spill, it can be catastrophic.
Mobile laboratories may be a truck or van, trailer or camper, or a full tractor-trailer combination. Marine biologists frequently use specially equipped ships as floating laboratories. Portable laboratories are self-contained with a generator for power; a full, self-contained water and plumbing system; and a heating or cooling system. Most of them have an air filtration system. Some mobile laboratories have airtight interiors for protection in pandemic situations.
Companies that design mobile laboratories build them to the customer's specifications. Options available may include specialized cabinetry for equipment, counter space for performing tests, and pullout sections to enlarge laboratory areas. Some companies offer modular facilities that are freestanding outside of the mobile laboratory.
Modular sections may contain decontamination showers and changing rooms and have special plumbing systems to retrieve and save the liquids for proper disposal. Another advantage of a modular, freestanding decontamination area is that the laboratory itself is not contaminated. Other uses for modular sections include additional classroom space, interview rooms, and sleeping or living space. Crime investigation mobile laboratories sometimes use modular sections to preserve small crime scene areas from adverse weather or onlookers.
Private businesses, government agencies, and universities are example of groups who own mobile laboratories. In the U.S., the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has one for investigating microbiological problems and a chemical analysis mobile laboratory to test for toxins, pesticides, and other chemical emergencies. Universities throughout the world have mobile teaching laboratory that are classrooms on wheels and designed to spark an interest in education and learning. Sometimes these mobile classrooms double as scientific laboratories, but generally they are dedicated to teaching. Occasionally a group may rent out the mobile teaching laboratory for events, such as fundraisers, birthday parties, and other celebrations.
Generally, the trucks that haul mobile laboratories are equipped for rugged wear. A mobile laboratory can be heavy and needs to ride as smoothly as possible to prevent jolting the sensitive scientific instruments. Trucks often are equipped with better shock absorbers, heavy-duty batteries, and durable air filters. Some features like larger fuel tanks and extra spare tires are necessary for mobile laboratories that scientist and technicians use in remote areas. Most mobile laboratories are designed to be set up and staffed by one or two people.