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Improving Sustainability

Many companies have made the decision to improve the sustainability of their operations, facilities, and products. They are doing so in response to a variety of pressures, including shareholder demand, employee interest, the potential for cost savings, and customer inquiries.

by Matthew Gardner,James McCabe
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How Life Cycle Analysis can Determine a Technology's Energy and Greenhouse Gas Impact from Cradle to Grave

Many companies have made the decision to improve the sustainability of their operations, facilities, and products. They are doing so in response to a variety of pressures, including shareholder demand, employee interest, the potential for cost savings, and customer inquiries. Some companies are responding by seeking ways to reduce their impacts on the environment. Others are taking steps to ensure that the companies in their supply chains are also embracing the concepts of sustainability. Some are giving back to their communities in ways that leverage their core expertise through activities such as volunteer programs or partnering with educational institutions. However, efforts that gain the most traction are usually those that present opportunities for increased revenues and/or reduced costs. For example, energy conservation measures are a common undertaking, as they not only reduce the environmental impacts of companies in most cases but (more importantly) also help them lower their costs.

Those companies that are beginning to seek energy savings start with identifying no-cost or low-cost measures to reduce energy consumption. These can include simple efforts such as exchanging light bulbs for more efficient technology, deploying motion sensors to turn off lights when a room is not occupied, or encouraging behavioral changes in employees.

Laboratories can be seen as both positive and negative contributors to overall sustainability-relevant impact. Laboratories are often the source of new technologies and advancements that can solve some of the world’s most challenging problems. However, because various chemicals and other potentially toxic or harmful reagents are widely utilized, most modern laboratories use large amounts of energy to operate the extensive HVAC systems necessary to keep the working environment stable and safe for employees. There is also the added aspect of a concentration of sophisticated instrumentation that requires significant amounts of energy to operate, and just as for people, needs to be maintained in a stable environment.

Of course, it is a fundamental requirement that any modern instrument, such as a liquid-chromatograph, be able to perform analyses with the requisite sensitivity, resolution, and throughput. This is and should be non-negotiable. However, the value of a given technology that not only promises superior performance but also has the added value of consuming less energy, using less solvent, requiring less material to manufacture, or being easy to dispose of in a responsible manner at the end of its life can and should be significant to those responsible for laboratory operations.

There are many considerations in assessing the energy and environmental impacts of a given laboratory instrument. Does one simply consider its energy usage while it is in the possession of the customer or does one take a wider view and consider the impacts of its manufacturing, usage, and ultimate disposal at the end of its useful phase? By adopting this broader view, or “life cycle” perspective, one can help both the manufacturer and the end user improve their sustainability profiles, so long as all the technical requirements of the product are achieved.

Performing a life cycle analysis on key laboratory technologies provides useful insight into the impacts of products and how they can benefit customers. A life cycle assessment (LCA) allows one to quantitatively determine the energy and greenhouse gas impacts of a product, from its manufacture through its useful lifetime and to its ultimate disposal at the end of its life.

To calculate the life cycle impacts of a product, one must understand the amounts and types of different materials that comprise the product at hand, as well as other aspects of manufacturing including transportation of components from vendors to assembly plants and the types and amounts of packaging required for the product. These are the different phases of a life cycle that are considered:

  • The extraction and movement of materials that will become the components to make up the product
  • The manufacturing energy to process the materials and assemble the product
  • The way in which the instrument is used in daily implementation, or the “use phase”
  • The disposal of the product after its useful life

For each of these phases, one can calculate energy usage and greenhouse gas and other environmental impacts. This is accomplished through the use of databases of commercially and/or publicly available “emission factors.” These factors, which have been compiled by academic, corporate, and nonprofit research organizations, represent average impacts for a wide variety of materials as they are mined or manufactured, processed, transported, assembled, and ultimately disposed of. Taken together, these provide a quantitative window into the relative impacts of each phase of a product’s life cycle, which can then provide the product designers with ideas for how their products can be improved upon.

A reliable and rigorous LCA requires good data regarding the composition of a product and how it is used in the laboratory. The types of materials used, how they are manufactured, how far they are transported, what the usage scenarios look like, and how the instrument is disposed of all factor heavily into the final analysis of where the largest impacts may lie.

For example, printed circuit boards are highly energy intensive to manufacture. However, they frequently (but not always!) use relatively low amounts of energy in their operation. Therefore, an instrument that is comprised of a proportionally high amount of printed circuit boards may see its biggest impact in the materials or manufacturing phase rather than in the use phase. So if a manufacturer wished to reduce the energy or environmental impacts of that product, it might choose to focus on reducing the amount of printed circuit boards required.

On the other hand, an instrument that has components such as pumps, valves, vacuum pumps, heaters, and chillers that are required to perform the analysis along with circuit boards is likely to have a more significant impact in the use phase on the lifetime energy consumption. So if a development organization seeks to reduce energy consumption in the use phase, it might seek efficiency gains to reduce the amount required to perform an operation or increase the throughput, thereby reducing energy per completed operation.

A recent LCA of a Waters ACQUITY UPLC® (Ultra Performance Liquid Chromatography) core system offered interesting insight into the energy or environmental impact of liquid chromatography (Figure 1). To perform a rigorous LCA of a complex instrument that may have thousands of parts is not a simple undertaking. It frequently requires the sacrifice of an instrument to establish quantities of parts and materials, hundreds (if not thousands) of man- hours to perform the analysis, and significant resources to compile the results in a way that product designers and engineers can understand and take action against.

The ACQUITY UPLC® analysis included a review of the components, development of realistic use-phase scenarios, and a look at common disposal methods. This analysis determined that the highest impact on energy consumption is in the use phase, especially considering that most end users utilize the equipment for years (for thousands of samples a year) and it requires the use and disposal of organic solvents.

When comparing this LCA to a more traditional HPLC instrument, the expected key difference is in the increased time for performing separations and the increased consumption of solvents. The manufacturing and subsequent disposal of organic solvents are quite significant when compared to the actual use of electricity (energy) to operate the instrument. It is possible to reduce the time the instrument takes to perform the analysis by increasing flow rate, but the aspect of an increased use of solvents limits the impact. These factors should be weighed when considering the total impact of HPLC analyses.

Figure 1

Performing a full life cycle analysis is a time-consuming and potentially costly undertaking. However, by making some smart and informed approximations of materials, processing, transportation, use-phase scenarios, and end-of-life disposition, Waters developed the information needed to determine which phase of a product’s life cycle represented the best opportunity to reduce the energy and environmental impacts of its products. Based on this research, product marketers and development engineers can choose how to focus their efforts and the company can effectively communicate the benefits of innovations.

The benefits of such analysis to customers are becoming clearer. Many end users have dozens of analytical instruments that altogether have significant energy and environmental impacts. As part of their sustainability goals, they are interested in reducing their energy consumption and minimizing environmental risk. However, they are not willing to do so if it means sacrificing the performance of their instruments. That is where smart, informed, and efficient life cycle analysis can play a critical role.

Sustainability is a topic that touches all aspects of an organization, and therefore all opportunities for improvement need to be considered. With an LCA approach, Waters can now explore improving its own energy and environmental footprint and help our customers improve theirs. We are confident that the combination of superior technology and minimized energy and environmental impacts is the value proposition that can drive business forward.