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Science and Sustainability

With freezers and fume hoods running nonstop, it’s no surprise that lab facilities hog more resources than do most other workspaces. 

by Bernard B. Tulsi
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University Driven Green Lab Initiatives Continue to Point the Way

Labs consume about four to ten times more energy, water, and other materials than do offices and classrooms. The labs at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder) occupied 20 percent of the total square footage on campus during 2010-2012, but accounted for 43 percent of its total energy consumption.

In response, academic institutions have been increasingly nudging their scientists and researchers toward greater resource conservation and promoting sustainability via green labs. The goal of this approach is to save energy, water, and materials and reduce waste, especially toxic and hazardous types. Kathryn Ramirez-Aguilar, PhD, green labs program manager at CU-Boulder, says a green lab is one that “takes action where it can to minimize the use of resources needed for its research.”

Dr. Ramirez-Aguilar says energy usage and savings vary across different labs. CU-Boulder’s green labs program, which started in 2009, works closely with the university’s 400 different labs to help them acquire equipment and appliances like vacuum pumps and refrigerators that are energy efficient but still able to meet their needs. Labs that purchase energy-efficient equipment may be eligible to receive financial incentives, she says.

Turning to the key driving forces behind these efforts, Ramirez-Aguilar says that while “saving money through the efficient use of our resources is certainly a benefit,” reducing the footprint of laboratories with respect to energy, water, and other resources is a major commitment. She points out that the 200 variable-air-volume fume hoods on the CU-Boulder campus are targeted for energy savings through ongoing sash monitoring. “We encourage closure of the sashes for more energy savings,” she says. Half the freezers on campus had set point changes from -80 degrees Celsius to -70 degrees Celsius, which also target energy savings.

In some cases, savings may result from how the equipment is used—such as turning off vacuum pumps at night—without interfering with research efficiency or safety in the lab, she says. “We often look for opportunities that are win-win, both for science and for conservation.”

She believes that a supportive endeavor, like the plug load initiative My Green Lab (, headed by executive director Allison Paradise, is worthwhile because “it could help the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in implementing efficiency-based ENERGY STAR ratings for laboratory equipment.”

“Universities, government research campuses, and industry labs need green ratings of lab equipment to help with the selection of energy-efficient items to purchase for their labs,” Ramirez-Aguilar says.

“The ENERGY STAR effort for lab-grade refrigerators and freezers (the first lab equipment that would have ENERGY STAR ratings) has been slow and struggling because of a lack of data from manufacturers.”

She notes that if the promise of My Green Lab comes to fruition, it could greatly aid the ENERGY STAR rating process by providing third-party tests of the equipment, according to the required test method, to be submitted to the EPA. “This will allow the process to go forward without the need for manufacturers to submit their own data,” she says.

My Green Lab is a California-based nonprofit group of former engineers and scientists who “care about the environment.” The group’s online literature states, “We recycle, buy energy- efficient bulbs for our homes, reuse bags in the store, and drive fuel- efficient cars.” The group notes that in the lab there is “rarely a thought given to the unrecycled plastic, the energy-demanding freezers, the mercury-laden bulbs we use in our microscopes.”

With its stated purpose of bringing “green technology and practices to institutions, companies, and scientific laboratories in order to achieve a safe, healthy, and environmentally and economically sustainable workspace,” the group’s mission is to “promote green practices and environmentally friendly, sustainable technology in research laboratories.”

The sharing of lab equipment is also being encouraged as a way to bolster sustainability objectives. The sharing of ultralow-temperature freezers is a notable example at CU-Boulder. “A great effort for the promotion of equipment sharing is an instrumentation website at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). These sites offer a real benefit on campuses across the nation because they enable researchers to know what resources may be accessible on their [own] campus,” says Ramirez-Aguilar.

This is especially important at this time of tremendous competition for grant funding, and can help ensure efficient use of grant money, she says. “There is a need for these sites on campuses across the nation (on university campuses and likely government ones as well) so scientists can know what resources already exist and don’t spend precious funding for items that they already have access to.”

She says that these sites also aid in efficient use of tax dollars and promote cooperation between scientists on a campus and across sectors (university, government, and industry). “For university campuses, a shared equipment site could also show that a campus is working to be compliant with federal procurement regulations in the recent Uniform Guidance document (procurement regulations will go into effect December 26, 2015) that requires sharing of equipment and avoiding duplicative or unnecessary purchases.”

These sites also enable universities to showcase their equipment assets, which could lead to attracting research talent and industry collaboration and funding, according to Ramirez-Aguilar.

Dr. Amorette Getty, staff advisor at UCSB’s LabRATS program, has been focusing on the development of effective instrumentation databases— and The Materials Research Facilities Network is a countrywide partnership of the Shared Experimental Facilities, which is supported by the National Science Foundation. The UCSB site displays instrument type by facility, among other information, and currently covers 55 facilities with a total of 319 instruments.

According to Dr. Getty, these sites increase access to specialty equipment. She notes that the green contribution of these efforts stems from the reduction of “redundancy in equipment needed, less embodied energy in the additional instrumentation, more efficient and full use of existing investments and expertise, and the interdisciplinary networking created.” She perceives these as “an advantage to the local, national, and international research engines as a whole.”

“I think this is a big use of the modern digital landscape to enhance research, alongside high-performance computing/modeling and improved data sharing, to streamline experiments and minimize redundancy. Those things indirectly but significantly impact water and energy use and our more traditional green focuses.”

Elaborating on some of the key issues of the traditional green labs focus, Allen Doyle, sustainability manager at the University of California, Davis, says the green labs concept “applies the core principles of sustainability to the scientist’s workplace performance and cost as well as environmental protection and quality of life.”

“High performance is essential; the science has to be done correctly and precisely at the right level, but it has to be done safely with less energy, plastic, wire, and other materials and resources.”

Acknowledging the challenges associated with measuring sustainability outcomes, Doyle says it is difficult to gauge energy and electricity use, especially in older laboratory buildings. “To measure the total electricity used by a lab, it is necessary to have a circuit isolated for that lab, which is rare. Then to measure it, an electrician will have to snap a sensor around the power supply to that lab—which is expensive and not easy to do.

“So we have to prioritize either water use or electricity or amounts of plastic waste and figure out other ways to get the metrics on sustainability,” he says. He notes that obtaining precise metrics for sustainability rates could well be impossible to do.

Part of the challenge, he says, is that these kinds of measurements are coming into focus only now. “We have supported scientists and their creative processes to have the most productivity without having to worry about energy goals—when electricity was very cheap.”

He says that universities supported scientists “to come in and do their creative magic” without worrying about costs and resource utilization. “Now we are dealing with the consequences of that, as we are realizing that because of the impact of greenhouse gases and water shortages we have to engage laboratory staff in resource reduction.”

Doyle says that scientists have traditionally not concerned themselves with how lab facilities work—in one exercise, among 20 scientists only one knew how the light switches in a lab worked. “One of the ideas of green labs is to engage scientists to participate in conservation in the workplace—that engagement is a big part of what the green labs initiative is all about.”

Turning to factors that could help drive such engagement, Doyle says, “At the institutional level, there are tremendous opportunities for cost savings. We just renovated a large lab building, and just from energy savings we got $1 million in rebates from a local utility company.” That will help bring the payback for the renovation into the four-to-five-year range, he adds.

Doyle says that at the researcher level, participation in green initiatives is pretty much voluntary. He notes that a number of scientists believe “it is the right thing to do, they understand their environmental impact, and they see a lot of plastic waste and are aware of how much energy and water they consume. Some of them are very excited to see it coming and welcome us to brainstorm with them.

“Other scientists are [too] busy to join in because of their heavy research schedules. They are also pressured by the current challenges associated with getting research funding.”

Doyle says that there are no regulations for being a green lab. “We have chemical safety codes and ventilation codes that are required. Because people want to be extra safe, we treat labs as all potentially hazardous and ventilate them the same way, which actually makes labs very expensive.”

He says that one of the frontiers for labs is to understand that they are essentially nascent offices and to treat them as such—“and to reward the occupants for keeping a safe workspace.” That will be a future driver, he says, adding that some labs are very low risk and managers can take advantage of that by using specialized sensors to monitor and confirm whether the air is fresh and safe to breathe. Based on that, ventilation rates can be slowed down quite a bit, he says.

In addition to slowing down ventilation rates, it is also possible to have the lab building “go to sleep” at night, Doyle says. “Until recently we have assumed that every lab might have a scientist in it at 3:00 a.m., so we ran systems 24/7—and as a result, a lot of buildings are overdesigned and out of control. This makes operating lab buildings tremendously expensive. We have several buildings here that have million-dollar air-conditioning budgets.”

Doyle is the first sustainability manager UC Davis has had in that position for about six years. He says that when he started in the field about nine years ago, he did not know of any other green lab programs in the country. “Now there are more than I can count. There are about 200 people like me around the country who are promoting green lab practices on their campuses, and even in some private, nonprofit and federal government labs. “It has really blossomed a lot in the [past] six to eight years.”

He says that federal labs have workshops on energy-efficient laboratory equipment and vendors are making greater efforts to develop and sell energy-efficient equipment. There are more equipment choices—vacuum pumps, water coolers, lasers and new ultralow- temperature freezers that use about half the energy of older models—for green lab solutions. He adds that ventilation standards are improving and that lab leaders are looking increasingly into automated control of their facilities.

Doyle says that there are about 1,000 freezers in the labs at UC Davis, each of which uses more electricity than does a house. He describes the operation of freezers at temperatures such as -80 degrees Celsius as overkill because there is rarely a need to operate in such cold conditions. “This is a push by industry, not science,” he says.

In the future, he would like to see better dry storage of samples. “I am hoping that cold storage will be managed at [the] institutional level.” He says that is difficult because individual scientists now take responsibility for cold storage and for the management of inventory and other details—a rather ambitious undertaking. Doyle is optimistic that the ventilation of lab buildings will “get a lot smarter in the future and that there will be elegant breakthroughs in building automation,” all of which will advance sustainability objectives.