Lab Notes: Greener Labs

Considering your lab probably consumes more energy than your entire home, it might be time to look at a number of options to make your laboratory more energy friendly.

Did you know laboratories consume five times more energy than your average home? And that small water baths can use as much energy as a dishwasher every hour? U.S. laboratories, on average, use far more energy and water per square foot than office buildings and other facilities because their activities are energy-intensive and their health and safety requirements are more stringent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The good news is that many lab researchers are now taking the necessary steps to reverse this wasteful trend and make their spaces more energy efficient.

The idea of “green labs” is increasingly more mainstream, says Allison Paradise, CEO of My Green Lab, a California non-profit run “for scientists, by scientists” to improve the sustainability of scientific research.

“When we started our non-profit six years ago, there were fewer than 10 research organizations, such as universities and biotech companies, with programs dedicated to laboratory sustainability and today there are nearly 100,” Paradise says.

“I think researchers have always been interested in reducing their environmental impact, particularly with regard to waste, they just haven’t known how or where to start,” she adds. “This is where My Green Lab has been particularly influential.  Our mission is to build a culture of sustainability through science.  In doing so, we work directly with scientists and research organizations to improve environmental health and resource utilization.”

My Green Lab has initiated several programs designed to meet its mission. One popular competition is its Freezer Challenge that’s designed to promote best practices in cold storage management. Labs get points for taking actions such as properly maintaining freezers and refrigerators and discarding old samples. Last year, more than 175 labs representing 28 organizations around the world competed, and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign claimed first place by saving an estimated 260,000 kWh/year.

Fume Hoods: A Big Offender

The large equipment used in laboratories are classic energy wasters and the fume hood — a necessity in any lab — is one of the worst offenders. A fume hood (“the cabinet”) provides a contained work space that is ducted outside of the building for researchers to handle materials such as volatile organic compounds and solvents. The user can adjust the hood’s movable window (“the sash”) to access the cabinet, and air is then driven away from the user at a proper rate to reduce exposure risk.

“I think researchers have always been interested in reducing their environmental impact, particularly with regard to waste, they just haven’t known how or where to start.” – Allison Paradise, CEO, My Green Lab

Fume hoods place tremendous pressure on a building’s HVAC system because they are constantly exhausting newly conditioned air out of the building. A recent “Fume Hood Strategy” white paper published by Harvard University cited that 44% of the energy used at one institution’s labs was directly related to ventilation. The paper analyzed Harvard’s Shut the Sash Program that was launched to encourage lab workers to shut fume hood sashes to reduce the amount of air exhausted from labs. The program resulted in the university saving an estimated $200,000 – $250,000 in utilities per year, according to the report.

Turning Green

Making environmentally smart changes in your lab can start with simple observations.

“The single most important action lab managers can take is to start asking, ‘Why,’” explains Paradise. “As you enter the lab in the morning, query why the equipment has been left on overnight. As you start work, critically examine the chemicals and reagents you are using and ask if there are more sustainable/benign alternatives.”

“By asking ‘Why?’ you will start to see your lab from a whole new perspective, and with this new perspective it will become clear which actions will go the furthest toward reducing the environmental impact of the lab.”

Fauntleroy Shaw is a freelance writer based in Carmel, Ind. She is a regular contributor to Endocrine News.


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