Laboratories consume huge quantities of energy—as much as two-thirds of the energy used by universities or research centers.Since so much of our quality of life depends on research and development, laboratories assign top priority to their products and processes, sparing no expense to get that assay, cell line, or analytical result out the door. As a consequence, labs have traditionally not been overly concerned about energy usage.
High energy costs and concern for the environment have changed those attitudes. Lab managers now ask, "how can we save energy costs while maintaining quality and throughput?"
The Sustainability Office at North Carolina State University offers several recommendations for lab energy savings.Most suggestions come down to observing best practices, for example turning off lights and ovens at night. Some instruments, of course, and most refrigerators, should never be turned off unless they are being serviced. Always check first with manufacturers, and don't forget to ask about warmup times on re-powering. Saving electricity is worthwhile, but not if it causes interruptions or delays.
An energy savings plan should consider both large and small energy drains on the premise that every little bit helps. Lab designers have adapted "smart" lighting from consumer markets, for example, that saves energy while providing high-quality light for researchers. Many of these choices are built around LED lights, which last longer and consume less energy than incandescent or fluorescent lighting for a given lumen output. Labs can also invest in task lighting, which illuminates specific work areas. Labs are increasingly looking to modular designs for greater flexibility, a highly significant factor in allowing scientists to inhabit the same workplaces safely during pandemics. Modular lighting follows modular lab furniture, benches, biosafety cabinets, and even utilities to where they are most needed.
Fume hoods are essential in chemistry and related industries, but the protection they provide comes at very high energy costs.A fully open fume hood exhausts 7.08 cubic meters of conditioned air—which the facility has already paid to heat or cool—per minute. Exhaust and control functions consume even more energy. A typical fume hood costs more than $9,000 U.S. to operate for one year.By contrast a -80°C freezer operating continuously costs less than $600 U.S. per year based on an average rate of $0.1319 per kilowatt-hour and energy consumption of 12 kwh per day.
Laboratories can therefore save substantial quantities of energy simply by asking workers to keep fume hood sashes closed when those workspaces are unused. Voluntary measures work only as far as workers comply, however, which is why “green” and even "smart" fume hoods have been an easy sell. These fume hoods have features like variable air velocity, which maintains a constant linear velocity regardless of the position of the sash. Variable air systems conserve conditioned air but are more expensive and complex than conventional exhaust systems.
Ductless fume hoods, which recycle laboratory air instead of discharging it, are the most energy-saving choice of all but this design is unsuited to work with highly toxic or radioactive materials.
Most drugs, reagents, intermediates, and biological samples are stable for years but only if stored at appropriate temperatures. Cold storage is therefore a huge issue in all the life sciences, and in many chemistry, environmental, and materials science labs as well. According to World Health Organization estimates, approximately 25% of critical medicines experience some sort of temperature-related degradation.
Because life science laboratories have diverse cold storage requirements, typical labs maintain several refrigerators and freezers running 24/7. Refrigeration is energy-intensive to begin with so, as with fume hoods, best practices can go a long way in getting the most value for your refrigeration energy dollar.
Before opening a freezer door, workers should know what they will be retrieving and its location. Browsing the contents of a refrigerator with the door open is a questionable practice, even when searching for a midnight snack, but it should be strictly avoided in laboratories to prevent sudden exposure of valuable samples to ambient temperatures.
Manufacturers have incorporated numerous energy-saving features into their laboratory- and pharmaceutical-grade refrigerators and freezers. Energy Star-certified units, which are manufactured mostly in Asia and sold worldwide, can save 75% or more on annual electricity costs. Vendors have also designed refrigerators and freezers for specific types of storage, for example biological samples or pharmaceutical products. Proper sizing is also important for maximum energy utilization. A unit that is too large wastes electricity but having inadequate storage space will force workers to stack samples, making them harder to find and resulting in doors staying open longer than they should.
- Laboratories should also undertake these operational improvements for refrigerator energy efficiency:
- 1. Consider raising your setpoint temperature from -80°C to -70°C
- 2. Remove dust buildup on condenser coils. Dust can reduce efficiency by 25% and reduce the unit's life
- 3. Be aware of how frequently compressors turn on. Constant on-off cycling suggests maintenance or repair may be required
- 4. Consider ongoing energy usage when calculating return on investment or lifetime operating costs
Laboratory energy savings involve planning, attention, and a commitment to conservation. A comprehensive energy-savings plan incorporates easy solutions like closing fume hood sashes, turning off lights, shutting off equipment that is not in use, and raising freezer set points. Labs must also consider acquiring or updating equipment to "green" alternatives designed to save energy without compromising performance. And, for equipment already in place regular, preventive maintenance can keep equipment running energy-efficiently and prevent costly shutdowns.
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