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Going Greener

Equipment vendors continue making strides to reduce energy use and consumables.

Mike May, PhD

Mike May is a freelance writer and editor living in Texas.

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Papers, Ph.D. students, and so on make up the traditional outputs of science laboratories, but these days energy consumption matters more and more.

That consumption includes the energy to condition the air and drive the analytical platforms. Disposable plastic, reagents, and other items also contribute to a lab’s consumption. Those consumables raise growing concerns as labs around the world strive to be more efficient, more “green.” Today’s vendors supply more options than ever to build a green operation. Nonetheless, much more work needs to be done to modernize labs.

“Green technology is extremely important in labs,” says David Constable, Ph.D., director of the Green Chemistry Institute at the American Chemical Society, “but not as prevalent as other issues. That is one reason that I think we need to raise the visibility.”

Some vendors already see more customers interested in green technology. For example, Cynthia Cai, director of marketing at Agilent (Santa Clara, CA), says, “Everybody is talking about sustainability.”

Others agree. For instance, Chip Diefendorf, director of business development at Mott Manufacturing (Brantford, Ontario, Canada), says, “Green technology is more important than ever.” He adds, “Many labs are seeking LEED credits.” LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and this program offers a range of ways to improve the efficiency of any lab.

As this article shows, a broad range of lab tools and techniques factor into today’s green thinking.

Assessing the scope

When considering green technology for a lab, two general concepts must be considered: the products being purchased as well as the practices being used by the manufacturer. For example, Mott Manufacturing makes a range of furnishings for labs, from casework—such as drawer and shelf units—to tables, as well as high-efficiency fume hoods. As Diefendorf asks: “What makes the lab furniture green, and what makes the manufacturer of the lab furniture green?” Those are two good questions.

For making the lab furniture green, Mott takes several approaches. For one thing, the company uses sustainable, recycled content whenever possible. “In our wood caseworks,” says Diefendorf, “we utilize lots of environmentally friendly materials, like recycled content in our boards and no VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in our finishing systems.” This company also makes flexible furniture systems that can be adapted to changes in a lab instead of being replaced.

Mott also uses green manufacturing processes whenever possible. “We are committed to keeping our local air clean,” says Diefendorf. “So we use a powder-coated painting system and UV-cured staining systems that don’t add VOCs to our local atmosphere.”

Key energy consumption

Do you know how your lab uses the most energy? “The biggest energy use comes from HVAC, not equipment,” says Constable. “If you have large instrumentation or vacuum pumps, those pieces of equipment will drive the energy equation after HVAC.”

Researchers face lots of options in vacuum technology, and many instruments need more than a facelift. “In the vacuum world,” says Dan McDougall, senior manager, laboratory products at KNF Neuberger (Trenton, NJ), “some technologies are showing their age because they are not green technologies.” The worst of all is the water aspirator that goes on a sink tap. “All that good, potable water gets poured down a drain,” McDougall explains. This approach to vacuum technology can also put solvents down the drain. Even with recirculating aspirators that use a water bath to save water, says McDougall, “at some point that water must be disposed of, which causes a groundwater issue.”

Early vacuum technology relied on oil rotary vane pumps. Still used in labs, these cause environmental concerns. “Over time, the lubricating oil becomes contaminated and it must be disposed of properly,” McDougall says. “So that oil is a consumable.”

Oil-free diaphragm pumps, on the other hand, don’t use water or oil. “KNF is the pioneer in the chemically resistant, oil-free diaphragm pump,” says McDougall. “Ours are designed to work with aggressive solvents and work fine for years and years.”

Advanced technology can automatically open and close the sash of a hood as a scientist comes and goes, and keeping the sash closed as much as possible saves energy. (Image courtesy of Mott Manufacturing)

Today’s advanced vacuum systems can also raise a lab’s green score in another way. For example, KNF’s SC920 and SC950 vacuum pumps include a Bluetooth controller that allows the system to be placed in a hood and the sash kept closed during vacuum processes. It’s always worth saving hood-related energy use, because Harvard University’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology website states: “A typical fume hood in the United States that runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, uses 3.5 times more energy than the average house!” In addition, sensors on the new vacuum systems operate pump motors at slower speeds and only when needed, conserving energy.

Using Bluetooth technology, KNF’s SC920 vacuum pump can be used inside a hood with the sash closed. (Image courtesy of KNF Neuberger)

Slow the flow

The key to efficiency in a fume hood depends on the total volume of air that gets exhausted from a lab space. “Green technologies correlate with a low volumetric rate of flow,” says Luke Savage, product manager for fume hoods at Labconco (Kansas, MO). This can be limited with ductless technology where applicable.

“There are limitations on ductless technology,” says Brian Garrett, product manager for biological safety cabinets at Labconco. “It can’t be a direct replacement for a fume hood, but ductless technology can replace lots of fume hoods.” That leads to savings in money and energy.

Even ducted hoods—such as Labconco’s Protector XStream—can perform more efficiently. “This chemical fume hood ensures a user’s safety to the highest possible level,” says Savage. “The second issue is energy consumption.” He points out that a hood that is six feet long and running at 100 feet per minute costs $8750 a year, whereas the Protector XStream provides the same safety running at 60 feet per minute, costing only $4830 with the sash fully open. Closing the Protector’s sash to just 18 inches drives the annual cost down to $3010, Savage says.

To keep the sash closed as much as possible, Mott developed an automatic system. “It uses a proximity sensor that closes the sash when you walk away and opens it when you return,” Diefendorf explains. Labconco offers a similar system.

The lifetime savings can grow to a staggering level. “If you couple a highperformance hood like the XStream with a variable air volume mechanical system, the hood will consume a meager $1800–$1900 a year, which is more than $100,000 in saved energy expenses over the hood’s 15-year lifetime.”

Agilent’s 7890B gas chromatograph reduces gas use by more than 90 percent. (Image courtesy of Agilent)

Other containment technologies can also get more efficient, and biological safety cabinets are a great example. Making such an instrument efficient depends on the blower motor, and the greenest one is a DC electrically commutated motor (ECM). “In the past,” says Garrett, “everyone used AC motors, which are very inefficient.” Then, Labconco put an ECM in its Purifier Logic biosafety cabinets, and it also used that kind of blower motor in its new Purifier Logic+. In addition, advanced biosafety cabinets can include a night-running mode that is 90 percent more efficient than its day-running mode and maintain the interior cleanliness of the biosafety cabinet.

Other vendors also pursue more efficient biosafety cabinets. Dave Phillips, product application specialist for biosafety cabinets at Thermo Fisher Scientific (Waltham, MA), says, “In 2002, we started putting DC motors in our biosafety cabinets for better performance, but we later found that it improved their efficiency by 25 percent.” To make biosafety cabinets even more efficient, Phillips and his colleagues match the unit to the user. “Our primary cabinet is great for a very demanding user,” Phillips says. “It provides incredible safety and containment, plus it has a reduced flow mode where you can close the window and the fans slow down for much lower energy consumption.”

The Thermo Scientific Sorvall LYNX Centrifuge and the Thermo Scientific Fiberlite carbon fiber rotor in combination provide a range of green benefits, from energy savings to reduced waste. (Image courtesy of Thermo Fisher Scientific)

Phillips points out that the biggest increase in energy consumption comes from adding external exhaust. “The decision of whether to exhaust or not is not scrutinized very much,” he says. “People might just add exhaust to be safe, but then be catapulted into the annual cost forever.” He adds, “If you need it, you need it, but if you don’t, it’s a waste.”

Controlling the consumables use

Some technologies use large amounts of solvents, which can be environmentally hazardous. As an example, Constable mentions high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). “This deals with large volumes of solvent, so you should try to minimize that or use alternative chromatographic approaches that use less solvents or ones that are more aqueous-based.” He adds, “You could move to supercritical fluid chromatography to get away from standard HPLC columns.”

Some consumables must be used more efficiently because of dwindling supplies. The best example might be helium. To help researchers conserve helium, Agilent (Santa Clara, CA) added gas-saving technology to its new 7890B gas chromatograph and its 5977A gas chromatograph/ mass spectrometer. This technology reduces gas use by more than 90 percent, says Cai. Both of these platforms also use less energy. These savings stretch across a wide range of users, because Cai says that the customers who use these platforms include academics, pharmaceutical scientists, and researchers in environmental testing, as well as scientists in food safety, forensics, and the petroleum industry.

Sometimes, the source of a “consumable” can be surprising. For example, Thermo Scientific Fiberlite Carbon Fiber Rotors for centrifuges outlast metal rotors. “You replace them less often, so there’s less waste over the lifetime,” says Phil Hutcherson, product manager for centrifugation at Thermo Fisher Scientific. To make its centrifuges even greener, the Sorvall LYNX 6000 Centrifuge removes part of the air from the chamber. “This reduces friction,” says Hutcherson. “Friction creates heat that requires refrigeration.” He adds, “The centrifuge also gives users different sleep modes.”

Automating for efficiency

In many cases, researchers can also improve a lab’s efficiency by adding automation. For example, Constable points out that “multicolumn chromatography enables faster and larger separation in pilot-scale operations.” In addition, using robots allows some lab operations to run around the clock. “That can introduce some economies and reductions in energy use.”

Some of the least efficient laboratories exist at colleges and universities. “Academic labs are for the most part comparatively far behind industry,” says Constable. “Some academic institutions have great instrumentation, but many of the smaller college teaching labs don’t have the means to upgrade as often.” He adds, “Major institutions that are R&D focused do a slightly better job.” By comparison, Constable sees much more greening going on in industry. “There’s lots more effort in the name of efficiency and energy reduction in industry, whether you’re going into an analytical lab or a contract research organization.”

Much of today’s inefficiency in labs arises from a lack of information. “Real-time analysis will help researchers understand what is really happening,” says Constable. In chemistry, for example, a researcher might leave a hot plate stirring for an hour when the reaction is over in two minutes. “If we probe the kinetics,” Constable says, “we will have a much better understanding of when the desired endpoint is reached.”

By combining all these tools and technologies, greener endpoints will emerge in labs around the world.