Bringing Sustainability to the Forefront of Research Laboratories

By Neill Lane, Chief Strategy Officer

Why should researchers, facility managers and lab operations care to reduce the environmental impacts and carbon footprint of their labs? Laboratories use tremendous amounts of energy because of equipment that is continuously running, the HVAC requirements needed to remove the heat generated by ultra-low temperature (ULT) freezers and the need for outside airflow. Did you know that besides data centers, laboratories consume more energy per floor space than any other type of facility? If most of the electricity supplied to your facility comes from fossil fuel-based power, your lab’s electric power consumption is the primary contributor to the release of CO₂, which determines carbon footprint.  By reducing your labs carbon footprint, you will ultimately run your lab more efficiently, save on energy and operating costs, and help your organization meet their sustainability goals.

Sustainable solutions for energy intensive ULT freezers

ULT freezers are at the top of the list next to fume hoods as the most energy-intensive piece of lab equipment. ULT freezers continually operate to keep valuable samples safe at the correct temperature. These -80°C freezers emit large amounts of heat, which can affect the ambient temperature in the lab. This rejected heat must be removed by the HVAC system to keep the surrounding work or storage space from becoming unbearably hot.

Standard, cascade compressor-based ULT freezers demand large amounts of power. In contrast, consider a ULT freezer that takes an alternative approach to conventional compressor-based systems, such as free-piston Stirling engine technology. By using high efficiency ULT technology to operate, not only will you save energy, but you will also reduce HVAC infrastructure load by rejecting proportionately less heat into labs and interior spaces. By retiring your older ULT freezers and replacing them with more energy-efficient models, you can significantly reduce your energy consumption costs and associated carbon footprint.

Look at the broader sustainability picture when assessing your ULT freezers and other lab equipment. Consider a freezer that contains 100% natural refrigerants that are EPA SNAP-compliant and built with environmentally sustainable foam insulation. Look for those that are produced in a facility that follows Zero Waste International Alliance standards and policies.

Introduce forward-looking behaviors to the lab

There are many other ways that labs can reduce their environmental impacts. Educating staff and implementing constructive behavior changes to the way we work can have lasting positive effects. Some of these behaviors and technologies include:

  • Keep fume hood sashes closed when not in use
  • Turn off or apply automatic on-off control systems in autoclaves when not in use
  • Upgrade to more efficient research-grade autoclaves to cut down on/recycle water or retro-fit older systems
    with water-saving devices
  • Utilize autoclavable glassware that can be reused to cut down on single-use plastic waste
  • Switch from water baths to bead baths to heat media and reagents
  • Purchase supplies and equipment from vendors that offer sustainable products and supply chains
  • Consider equipment that has ENERGY STAR® certification or the ACT label
  • Order supplies in bulk and not individually wrapped items
  • Examine ways to recycle single-use plastics and other supplies like nitrile gloves
  • Design and post clear signage with pictures of items that should be placed in the appropriate recycle or waste
    bin to make it easy and fast
  • Consolidate orders and work with other departments to cut down on the number of deliveries
  • Share materials or equipment with colleagues or other departments to optimize resources
  • Turn off lights and other equipment that does not need to be running continuously
  • Install low-flow water aerators in sink faucets

Why not start reducing your lab’s environmental impact today?

The adoption of sustainable technologies and practices is important because, not only does it improve your lab’s carbon footprint, it can also help save operating costs. From reduced energy and water use and less waste, your organization can refocus those funds towards valuable research projects and other resources.

A sustainable lab does not mean you have to compromise or interrupt your work. You can start by having an open dialogue with your team to discover where there are opportunities for your lab to improve and brainstorm possible solutions. Once you have buy-in from your team and a formal plan put into action, the new processes will become second nature. Imagine your lab modeling sustainable practices and fueling change within your entire organization.

To learn more, read our latest article “Behavior and Technology Changes Must Be Part of Lab Sustainability Efforts” »