Lighten the Load: Easing Energy Use in the Lab

A typical research lab uses a lot of energy on any given day, but there are simple steps you can take to “green” your lab.

At Penn State University, lab buildings cost around $5 to $10 per square foot in utilities, while office space uses under $2 per square foot. This discrepancy is typical across universities and hospitals. An average laboratory will use three to five times more energy than an office or classroom. When you take into consideration water consumption and hazardous waste, the gap grows much larger.

Penn State saved an estimated $672,722 in operating costs after putting in place a comprehensive energysaving project. But, unfortunately, the financial costs of running “green” programs more often outweigh the monetary savings from smaller energy bills and less trash. This has inhibited most labs from implementing similar environmental plans in the past. However, an increased consciousness about sustainability has caused green initiatives to pop up across the country and world.

The greatest progress has been made at universities like Penn. Many have established internal accountability programs to satisfy the demand among staff, faculty, and students for greener practices. Campus- or hospital-wide cooperation naturally leads to the greatest impact, but there are steps that individuals can take to reduce unnecessary waste as well.

Flip the Switch

We all know to turn offthe lights when we leave a room, but there are a lot more switches to hit when exiting a lab. The impact of these many machines buzzing needlessly adds up to a significant electrical drain. Kathryn Ramirez-Aguilar, green labs program manager at the University of Colorado, Boulder, told ffe Scientist that a refrigerated floor centrifuge uses the same energy as a pair of flat-screen televisions when left idle at 4°C.

A lack of awareness about such facts seems to drive a large portion of excess consumption. Ramirez-Aguilar discovered that 11 diffusion pumps used to generate ultra-low pressure conditions were perpetually running in a certain lab. She put five of the pumps on timers to automatically shut offduring evenings and weekends, which saved about 58,000 kWh of electricity and one million gallons of water in a year.

Some of the largest energy consumers are freezers, specifically the ultra-low temperature (ULT) variety. An average ULT takes up 16 to 35 kWh/day, and large universities might have hundreds running across its laboratories all day long. As a secondary effect, the heat from the freezers’ motors will, in some cases, throw offthe cooling system for an entire building and drive even more waste.

Experts suggest scheduled defrostings and cleaning out of superfluous samples. Labs can also share freezers to decrease the number needed and keep a careful inventory to maximize available space. Samples are often placed in ULTs when a less extreme temperature would suffice. Allen Doyle, sustainability manager at the University of California, Davis, pointed out to The Scientist that some researchers keep DNA samples at −80°C when –20° would do the trick.

Smart Inventory

Similarly, lab workers will often order things they do not need. This is especially true when it comes to chemicals. Large organizations and universities with multiple labs can share resources, but all labs should carefully record all inventory to avoid over-ordering or buying additional supplies when there are plenty of stores hidden in the stockroom.

An inefficient lab may allow buckets of chemicals to expire on the shelf while spending extra funds on unneeded replenishments if a smart tracking system is not in place. Ultimately, this leads to additional hazardous waste, as chemicals can be particularly difficult to recycle or dispose of.

The conversion to “green chemicals” can assuage the overall effects of such waste. To assist researchers in finding more environmentally friendly alternatives for their experiments, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) tasked its Chemistry program and Environmental Health and Safety Office with developing a “purchasing wizard database.” The project is one of several funded with help from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) People, Prosperity, and the Planet grants.

Among the substitutions offered by the database, one of the most common has been ethidium bromide, a gel dye for DNA samples. Because it acts as a mutagen, this chemical can be dangerous to lab workers and causes waste removal issues. The wizard recommended Life Technologies’ SYBR Safe in its place. This safer substance can be poured down the drain in many labs, though it does cost more than ethidium bromide.

Sash-ay Away

When you walk away from a fume hood, always close the sash. It provides the largest savings with the least amount of effort — up to $2,000 to $3,000 per year per hood in energy bills. Amorette Getty, co-supervisor of the LabRATS program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, claims that, “A fume hood uses the equivalent of three residential houses’ worth of electricity per year.”

The staggering consumption comes from the vacuum of air-conditioned lab air into the hood, necessitating the production of more air conditioning. The Scientist estimates that most labs require six or more air changes per hour under normal conditions, but an open sash can exponentially raise that amount. By keeping hoods closed for at least half the day, labs may be able to reduce energy needs by nearly 40%.

One easy way to remind scientists and students to close the fume hoods involves stickers. According to Getty, some laboratories have begun placing them on the side of each unit to show the amount of energy use for different heights of the sash, and report significant improvements in compliance.

Human Resources

All programs suggest a designated point person for coordinating green lab activities, from recycling to stickers. They can hold scientists and students accountable for poor practices and reward those that uphold high-efficiency standards. For laboratories that cannot afford a green project staffmember, there are numerous self-checklists to assist with eco-friendly aspirations.

Although “going green” may not yet come with financial incentives for smaller operations and individuals, many researchers have come to expect and desire a greater emphasis on waste reduction, recycling, and environmental safety. The reward comes in the form of reputation and a satisfied conscience.

— Mapes is a Washington, D.C.–based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Endocrine News. She wrote about the state of endocrinology in the June issue.

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