If it’s possible to have a mobile home, just imagine how useful a mobile lab would be?

The dream: to have a mobile laboratory to take into the field to provide suitable facilities for sample processing. In a response to an outbreak of a pest or disease it would extend the laboratory reach enabling us to examine samples, which could have just been collected in the vicinity.

Furthermore, the vehicle could provide welfare facilities to staff working on site for the whole day. But it would have to weigh less than 3.5 tonnes so that any member of staff could drive it on their normal driver’s licence. Whilst mobile homes come in many shapes, sizes and are ready-made, our dream vehicle would need to be built!

The process

Thanks to some funding from Defra, we were given the challenge to procure a van and convert it to a laboratory with kitchen and bathroom facilities. The work would have to be put out to tender, a van purchased and then the layout and specification for the conversion decided before the modifications could begin.

This would all require a successful collaboration between tree health scientists at Forest Research who knew what was desirable from a laboratory perspective and colleagues from the Forestry Commission’s Mechanical Engineering Unit who had lots of experience purchasing vehicles for forestry work.

Some of the key features that we wanted for the mobile lab included:

  • Power to run the laboratory equipment would need to be provided by Lithium-ion batteries which could be charged as the van was driven
  • A water tank and pump to supply water with a shower head to wash footwear for good biosecurity or provide water for on-board work
  • Laboratory benches for 2 staff to work at
  • Incubator and fridge for sample storage, a flammable cupboard and plenty of stowage
  • An awning to extend the protected work area outside of the van
  • Seating for staff to have lunch in the dry with a microwave and kettle
  • A toilet and hand wash station

As an added challenge, we needed to meet all these requirements whilst keeping the weight of the vehicle below the 3.5 tonne limit. Sometimes this meant that different options for equipment had to be considered.

The reality

Following the procurement process, a conversion specialist was successful in proposing a costing and plan for the layout of the van. It was decided that a long wheel-base Mercedes Sprinter van would be most suitable but the second Covid lock down prior to Christmas resulted in any vans being snapped up by delivery firms. Consequently, ours had to be ordered from the continent but luckily it arrived without too much delay.

We took receipt of the mobile lab at the end of March 2021. Since then, it has been taken into the field to support the Ips typographus monitoring work, the Acute Oak Decline project and recent Phytophthora pluvialis surveys. Its large height and length do mean that it is not always possible to get it into woodlands with access restrictions.

However, its comfortable working environment has been appreciated as the rain lashed down outside. Although the kettle is small it does make a lovely cup of tea and being able to work in the back of the van, whilst charging your laptop to potentially join meetings from the field is a great facility. We have not had the field capability to process material previously and the van has already shown itself to be a great resource to be used by colleagues in the United Kingdom tree health family