Note that the fume hood discussion below includes one of the CHAS Members at Large...
To find hacks for greening your lab, start with the freezer
Temperature adjustments are only one way to reduce a lab‰??s environmental footprint, but change takes a little outside-the-box thinking
by Carmen Drahl
Not many nightmare scenarios grip Kristala Jones Prather‰??s imagination. But one that haunted her for a long time involved the ‰??80 å¡C freezer in her Massachusetts Institute of Technology lab. Freezer temperatures can vary by a degree or two, especially when researchers constantly open and close doors to pull out or store precious samples. But what if the freezer warmed up over a long weekend because of a mechanical failure or power outage?
Prather and her team need ultralow temperatures to stash microbes they have engineered to make biofuels and other valuable chemicals. A warmed, suboptimal freezer might ruin work, thwart grant proposals, and delay thesis defenses. Little wonder that the idea of the Prather lab‰??s freezer temperature hitting ‰??70 å¡C felt, she says, ‰??like the end of times was coming.‰??
Until Prather had what she calls her revelation. Her lab became a pilot case for MIT‰??s Green Labs Program in April 2016. During the certification process, she learned that setting the freezer to ‰??80 å¡C was overkill for her lab‰??s cultures and a waste of energy besides. ‰??We call them minus-80 freezers, but you can set them to whatever you want,‰?? she says. She chuckles at the thought that since summer 2016, her freezer has been set to ‰??70 å¡C, the very temperature that used to trigger panic.
GREEN CASE STUDIES
Increasing your freezer‰??s temperature isn‰??t the only way to green your lab. Here are some other methods scientists have adopted.
To rising-fourth-year graduate students Jacob Burman and Caitlin Farr, it seemed inefficient to use aspirators hooked up to the water faucets to pull vacuum for filtrations. The vacuum arises from the aspirator‰??s narrow tube as water gushes into the drain. Water‰??lots of it‰??gets wasted.
So when their adviser, Simon Blakey, asked his group to think of green lab ideas, the duo obtained funding for a vacuum pump from Emory University‰??s sustainability office. The shared pump travels the lab by cart and features a solvent trap for harmful chemicals so they can be disposed of in the proper waste streams. Although vacuum pumps use electricity, Burman suggests that the benefit of saved water outweighs the cost. A challenging filtration can take up to 20 minutes of flushing water or under a minute with the vacuum pump.
At Emory, Burman and Farr replaced mineral oil and silicone oil baths, commonly used to heat chemical reactions to temperatures over 100 å¡C, with metal heating blocks. Oil baths brown with time and accumulate contaminants, and the oils must be disposed of and replaced every two to three months. ‰??Developing new reactions is my passion, but I don‰??t want my passion to affect the environment I live in,‰?? Farr says.
At pharmaceutical company Amgen, a chemical inventory system tracks every reagent from the day it‰??s ordered to the day it runs out. In a 12-month period across four research sites, the system flagged nearly 700 requests for chemicals already in stock. Reducing duplicate orders reduced waste and saved over $124,000.
Fume hoods can be among the worst offenders in terms of energy consumption because they constantly remove cooled or heated air. This wastes energy. Some advanced hood designs can both keep volatile compounds contained and slow airflow down considerably with the sash partially raised, but every chemist can benefit by closing the hood sash when the hood is not in use. This action shields lab occupants from ongoing or unexpected reactions and in many cases can conserve airflow.
When he was working at the University of California, Davis, sustainability manager Allen Doyle codesigned stickers that can be affixed to hood sash frames to promote proper placement. ‰??It‰??s a 50-cent solution to a thousand-dollar problem,‰?? he says.
At Cornell University, design and environmental analysis graduate student Kristin Aldred Cheek, laboratory ventilation specialist Ellen Sweet, and their colleagues are experimenting with a smiley-face emoji sticker that is cut in half and lines up when researchers properly close a fume hood sash.
The National Institutes of Health offers in-house distillation to purify and recover ethanol; acetone; formalin, commonly used in specimen preservation; and xylene, commonly used in microscopy studies of biological tissues, says Bani Bhattacharya, who leads NIH‰??s sustainable labs working groups. This service reduces not only costs but also waste.
At the University of Edinburgh, lab sustainability coordinator Andrew Arnott purchased inexpensive plugs that put laboratory equipment such as ice makers, drying ovens, and water baths on timers. The equipment saves energy by shutting off at night; it turns back on early enough to be ready when the first scientists arrive in the morning.
When Daniel Nocera‰??s lab moved from Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Harvard University, Nocera lab staff scientist Dilek Dogutan saw an opportunity. ‰??We were buying solvent in 4-L bottles‰?? in the MIT lab, she recalls. That generates a pile of packaging waste and carries a risk of spills with every solvent transfer. So she helped design a solvent-dispensing system with refillable 20-L containers. ‰??They look like beer kegs,‰?? Dogutan explains. When a solvent runs dry, the lab ships the bar-coded stainless-steel container to Sigma-Aldrich for a refill, no packing material required.
Amgen‰??s research facility in Massachusetts processes laboratory plastics such as pipette tips and gloves that waste management companies don‰??t typically recycle. The technology converts the plastic waste into recycled plastic lumber that can become construction material for buildings or speed bumps for roadways.
Greening a laboratory‰??applying sustainable strategies to reduce a lab‰??s impact on the environment‰??isn‰??t a new concept. But the tale of the low-temperature freezer illustrates a challenge in this field. Some not-so-sustainable practices are culturally driven rather than based on necessity. And the activation barrier to behavior change can be intimidating, even for an intervention as straightforward as adjusting a touch pad or dial.
more discussion of temperature setting at URL above
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