Here’s a little-known fact: a single ultra-low temperature laboratory freezer uses about as much energy as an entire house. As a top research university, Carolina operates thousands on campus.
There’s an ongoing movement, led by a San Diego-based nonprofit called My Green Lab, to increase the energy efficiency of lab equipment. Since 2017, My Green Lab has organized an annual competition called the International Laboratory Freezer Challenge. It should come as no surprise that here in Carolina — home to numerous athletic championships and even a series of flu shot titles — the research teams participating in the Freezer Challenge are here to win it.
Leading the pack is the lab of Patricia Basta, clinical assistant professor of epidemiology at the Gillings School of Global Public Health. The Basta Biological Specimen Repository is a “central lab”, meaning it also serves other labs on campus. His laboratory has 15 freezers that consume a lot of energy.
In 2021, Basta’s lab was one of 12 International Laboratory Freezer Challenge lab award recipients, winning in the “biodeposit / central facility / shared cold storage award” category.
This year, two Carolina labs participated in the national challenge: Professor Xian Chen’s lab in the School of Medicine, which saved 29.35 kWh per day, and Basta’s lab, which saved 135.7 kWh per day. . As the top-performing UNC-Chapel Hill lab in the challenge, Basta’s team won $5,000 to maintain or purchase an ultra-low-energy freezer.
The big winner in the university sector this year was the University of Virginia.
Why Energy Efficient Freezers Matter
Switching to an energy-efficient freezer might seem like a small change, but it can have a significant impact on the environment.
This year, more than 1,200 laboratories from 120 research institutes participated in the Freezer Challenge, collectively saving 9.5 million kWh of electricity. This is equivalent to reducing carbon emissions by approximately 6,700 metric tons, or roughly the same amount produced by 1,450 gasoline-powered vehicles in one year.
“It’s amazing the amount of energy used by labs in general,” Basta said, “but also freezers in particular.”
Basta said she and her lab are motivated to do this work because “we want our children and grandchildren to have a place to grow.”
The purchase of energy-efficient freezers at Carolina is facilitated by the Renewable Energy Special Projects Committee, a group of students funded by a green energy levy that students pay for renewable energy infrastructure, energy efficiency energy and energy education. RESPC offers discounts 35% of the cost of an ultra-low freezer – about $5,000 – which is about the difference between an energy-efficient model and a standard freezer. RESPC also offers the Top Performing Caroline Lab Award in the My Green Lab Freezer Challenge.
In recent years, Basta Lab has replaced its 15 freezers purchased in 2004 with energy-efficient models approved by RESPC and its campus partners. Basta said she greatly appreciates and supports the RESPC program. Without it, they might not have been able to replace older units at such a rapid rate.
How Laboratories Conserve Energy
In addition to purchasing energy-efficient devices, there are other ways labs can save energy.
The Freezer Challenge takes into consideration whether labs empty freezer coils and vents, whether they defrost their freezers, whether they clean out old samples that are no longer needed, and how efficiently they store their samples.
Since 2020, the Basta Lab has thrown away enough old samples to empty two entire freezers.
Basta urges other labs to vacuum freezer filters, check gaskets every two months, and generally be more aware of their lab’s footprint.
Basta’s lab also shares equipment, a practice that is gaining ground in Carolina. There is a LISTSERV for clinical researchers where labs can list equipment and supplies they want to share or no longer need. Since medical school labs are the most funded, they often replace equipment. With LISTSERV, they can donate old equipment to other labs. (Email [email protected] to register.)
In addition to being environmentally friendly, being mindful of experimental design and processing flow to avoid wasted supplies like gloves and pipette tips helps their lab solve budgeting and workflow issues. supply, Basta said.
“We never compromise our samples,” she said, “but we try to do our job in a way that minimizes the number of [supplies] we use.”
The green-lab movement in Carolina
A group of Carolina faculty, staff, and students called UNC Green Laboratories encourages sustainable practices and promotes awareness of ecological issues in the University’s laboratories.
Last year the group started sticker printing to indicate which equipment can be turned off when.
“Like any part of the University, there’s a transient population – lots of students coming in and out, researchers coming in and out – and you say turn off the equipment, but people don’t know not what’s possible to turn off and what’s not. . They don’t want to mess it up for someone else,” said Cindy Shea, Sustainable Carolina’s director of sustainability and an advisor for RESPC.” So we printed stickers that said, ‘Turn me off when you’re not using it,’ ‘Turn me off at the end of the day,’ ‘Never turn me off.’
UNC Green Lab initiatives are embraced campus-wide. The effort involves lab managers and researchers along with supporting organizations like Sustainable Carolina; the waste reduction and recycling office; Energy management; and environment, health and safety. This includes promoting greener practices, including the Frieza Challenge.
Shea said Basta and his lab are setting an example for other labs.
“Basta Lab really took this to heart,” Shea said. “It is a value for them. Staff see the merits of doing things more sustainably, thereby reducing environmental impact, reducing risk to their samples and saving money for the University.
Lab workers are busy with their jobs and getting grants, Shea says, so many are unaware of the extent of the resources available to them.
“We want the labs involved in science — super important efforts, over $1 billion in sponsored research every year, life-saving strategies — to embrace a culture of sustainability,” Shea said. “And for anyone to be able to do that, you have to give them the tools to make it easier.”
Caroline has developed a certification program based on what other schools across the country are doing, encouraging on-campus labs to adopt the same sustainable practices. Most of the actions are easy to implement, such as putting up signs that clarify what is recyclable, keeping an inventory of laboratory samples, and closing the sashes of fume hoods when not in use. Clear guidelines on when to use tap water instead of distilled water and dishwashers instead of autoclaves are also important.
Basta said she and her lab have learned a lot of green techniques through the international My Green Lab Freezer Challenge and Carolina’s own initiatives.
When she started at Carolina, retraining was not readily available. Now, recycling bins abound and most of the plastics used in the lab are recycled.
“UNC has really made progress,” Basta said.