Zero carbon labs

27 October 2021

Posted by: Richard Scrase

Category: News

During an interview, Prof. Dame Sarah Gilbert was asked, “What do your team usually ask you for?”

I anticipated, some time off? a raise? “More fridges” was the dry reply.

Fridges, it transpires, are one of the most energy demanding items in the bio-research world.

Science labs use energy and materials. The energy bill from STEM facilities, including animal facilities, is often greater than the rest of the university put together, including student accommodation. At Kings College London for example, there are seven animal research facilities, where around 60 staff care for 28,000 rodents, 35,000 fish and a small number of other animals such as rabbits and guinea pigs. Is it possible to do science at this scale in a (net) zero carbon world?

UAR interviewed Anna Lewis, sustainable science manager at the University of Bristol, Stephen Woodley who runs Biological Services at Kings College London and Martin Farley, Green Labs Associates, currently working for UCL, to define the problem and discover some of the solutions.

Before we hear about the nitty gritty, we need to know about a few words of jargon, Anna explains:

“With regards to carbon, I think to most people, people think of reducing flying or cycling to work, they think of moving to a green energy supplier, and all of those produce carbon. But in the sustainability world, we look at carbon within different scopes.”

Scope 1: This covers the Green House Gas (GHG) emissions that an organisation makes directly, running its boilers and vehicles for example.

Scope 2: These are the emissions made  indirectly, essentially the electricity that we buy from the grid.

Scope 3: This includes emissions associated, not with the university itself, but that the university is indirectly responsible for. For example, from buying products from its suppliers. Emissions-wise, Scope 3 is embedded carbon in travel, transport, supply chains in the food system etc.

“Scope 3 carbon is always someone else’s scope 1 or 2 carbon.”

Benchmarks and targets

To reduce CO2, you have to measure what you emit and then set about finding ways of producing less pollution. How well is the University of Bristol doing for example?

Anna: “The baseline is 2005 and 2006 originally. Since then, we‘ve reduced our absolute carbon emissions by 27% but that’s taking into account that the university has grown by about 50% in terms of staff, students as well as our campus and infrastructure.”

And the targets?

Carbon neutral by 2030 for energy, that’s our scope 1 and 2. The way in which we are aiming to meet that is by reducing the energy consumption within our buildings by 40 to 50%, which is no mean feat in a university such as Bristol that’s in the middle of a city and also has many Grade II listed buildings that are very, very, very inefficient, I can’t stress that enough. Then there is the decarbonisation of the grid, which will naturally help everyone. Then there is offsetting for the remainder.”

Buying electricity from a ‘green’ supplier seems an obvious way to minimise scope 2 carbon and this is the case for Kings College London. Bristol does the same, Anna explains:

“There is something called the energy consortium, otherwise known as TEC, which is a group of UK universities that have pulled together to create a purchasing framework for energy. Bristol is within that and is heavily involved in creating those frameworks, so we purchase our energy through a tariff with TEC, and it’s a 100% British wind farms, so 100% renewable.”

Stephen makes the further points:

“Our (KCL) non-clinical waste goes to incineration where it’s used to produce energy, but I think green gas is a bit more challenging.”

Achieving those targets - less hot air

So how do you manage changes in the way a university operates to reduce pollution?

Anna: “I personally deliver a behaviour change scheme called LEAF which stands for the Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework. It’s a green lab accreditation scheme. Our STEM buildings are by far the worst in terms of environmental impact, it’s a really good place to focus. Our STEM buildings are responsible for 40% of our energy, water and waste, but only 6% of our spatial asset.”

And in answer to where does the greatest amount of energy use come from inside the STEM facilities?

It’s easily moving air around and conditioning air. Within labs there is a thing called air change rate which means that the air has to move around the lab. In Bristol we saw between 12 to 15 times per hour, which is very high. In US they’ve started reducing this significantly. There are huge fans at the top of the buildings that do this as well as smaller units within labs, and it uses an awful lot of energy conditioning the air. To put it into perspective, about 70% of the energy use in a lab comes from moving air around.”

“Fume cabinets in labs can use 2-3 houses worth of energy", explains Martin, so more efficient fume cabinets with variable speed and that automatically switching themselves off can help.”

Stephen develops this point,

There are also changes not just within changing the number of air changes but also looking at the equipment in the plant and having more energy efficient equipment supplying air or steam. So, in some areas where animals are exposed; in a theatre, for example, where surgeries are performed, we would have high number of air changes compared to a IVC animal holding room. In our IVC rooms we have 15 air changes per hour and 90 % of our rooms are IVC. The remainder have 20 changes an hour.”

“so instead of humidifying the room, we humidify the cage. And obviously the difference between humidifying a whole room, a large room, compared to humidifying a cage is very different.”

Managing the cage environment rather than the room has other advantages,

“So typically, the room fits around a kind of laboratory environment of 40% relative humidity but the cages themselves in those areas are running at 55% RH. You have not just sustainability, but you also have a huge benefit where you can also provide a much more stable environment for research.”

Managing the research process is also important. When scientists want to use animals, they have a structured conversation with the animal care team. Stephen explains:

“If you optimise experimental design and colony management, you could potentially reduce the number of animals which, obviously the primary benefit there is animal welfare, but the secondary benefit is reducing the carbon emissions through the amount of consumables you use.”

Anna again:

“Not having the air changes high when the labs aren’t occupied, and that’s a really, really big one, and we are working on putting controls into our labs. Optimising space and optimising controls or putting in new controls is probably the lowest hanging fruit and has the best pay back.”

Putting in new control systems allows better management but how do you ensure your staff are applying best practice? Anna explains:

“We have various incentives, so green grants will offer people if they do any project or put some efficient kit in which saves on water, energy or waste, we will give the five years’ worth of that savings upfront or towards the project, so that helps. Over time I’ve noticed that there has been this huge change in peoples investment in sustainability, they went from not really caring about it to something that people are very, very engaging with now and coming to our team a lot and asking what they can do. There has been a massive shift in opinion and engagement.”

Achieving those targets - refrigeration

After ventilation what’s the next biggest user of energy in a STEM facility?

Anna: "Engineering and physics labs can have earthquake labs and things like that, so huge pieces of kit that will use so much energy, there is not a great deal that we can do around reducing that. When it comes to the chemistry labs and life sciences labs, they tend to have common lab equipment that is seen throughout all of them. And in those cases, I’ve done equipment replacement programs where I’ve replaced all of their ultra-low temperature freezers with efficient units or all of their drying cabinets, saving about £250,000 plus per year (in energy costs) from doing those two projects alone.”

A single older fridge maintaining a temperature of -80 degrees C can use £1,500 of electricity a year. People tend to turn the setting to the coldest possible but until a few years ago fridges could only cool to -70 degrees C so one of the most effective changes made at all the universities was to increase the thermostat of fridges back to -70.

A freezer running at -80 uses as much energy as a house,” explains Martin, “it’s not necessary, running at -70, gives a 25-30% energy saving.”

Good management decreases the amount of material saved, so that fridges can be left unused or never bought in the first place. New fridges use two thirds of the energy of old, so replacing them is another step.

But refrigeration can also allow a facility to save energy. Stephen gives an example of improving mouse colony management,

“We looked at cryopreserving a large number of colonies. By cryopreserving those colonies we were able to convince users that they could close them down until required further. Within a two-and-a-half-year period we reduced the total number of animals by around 4,000 per year, which is a significant number of animals.”

Achieving those targets - materials

The World Health Organisation states that STEM research accounts for 1.8% of global plastic waste.

In my work with UAR I’ve filmed in quite a few facilities now. In every case I’ve had to cover myself with boiler suits, lab-coats, masks, hats and shoe-covers. They have almost always been disposable - binned on my way out. Consumables - the name says it - are usually plastic.

What can be done about this?

Martin: “In terms of BSU specific things, I think the garb (clothing) is one thing that really jumps to mind. I’ve visited quite a few facilities and I find it interesting that everyone seems to have slightly different procedures on how to control for lab animal allergens, and those procedures can have quite drastic impacts in terms of your sustainability and efficiency.”

“We’ve seen in some facilities where they’ve reintroduced clothing garb. I’ve seen some evidence that it’s actually a cost saving as well. As in the UK, our sources of energy are becoming increasingly renewable. I would advocate for use of energy for the most part over consumption of materials.”

“Consumption of materials represent a huge loss if you’re just burning through them. Those garbs typically will be incinerated at high temperatures, it’s worth mentioning that balance. People often mention the loss of energy and water that it takes to maintain cloth garb, and I would say that when you look at the carbon that goes into producing materials and incinerating and disposing of them, I for the most part almost always advocate use of energy over use of materials if there is an opportunity to do that.”

In an animal facility disposing of dirty bedding is another issue.

Stephen: “Now we’re in predominantly IVCs we are able to reduce our waste by cleaning out less frequently (selective base change). Obviously, the welfare of the animals always comes first, and we have to make that assessment on the cage itself, but in some cases cages may go three weeks before they are cleaned out.”

Martin describes how to reduce the impact of the waste that is produced with a LEAF accreditation system. For a lab to reach a bronze standard requires some thought.

“Traditionally in labs and I think animal facilities as well, we’ve veered towards incinerating everything that passes through these areas. So, for bronze, we look at the criteria for waste. It says - do you have waste bins, signage and recycling?”

“The next guidance might have you reduce mis-segregation of waste. It’s one thing to have a recycling bin, it’s another thing to make sure that people are using it correctly. That’s a health and safety thing if it’s just got paper because you don’t want the clinical waste, but it also becomes a sustainability thing when you start putting the packaging in clean, perfectly fine packaging in clinical waste bins.”

Scope 3 - talking to suppliers

Procurement is where pressure can be exerted on suppliers but there are challenges, Anna:

"It’s very difficult because our procurement and finance systems are quite difficult to navigate, and they haven’t captured date effectively”

Stephen explained that he had no direct control over the choice of suppliers.

“It is managed on a university wide basis, it may be if a company can supply a similar product at a similar price, then procurement will also look at whether this company is more energy efficient, does it have better diversity plans and various other aspects.”

Scope 3 - getting to work

People use energy to get to work. Changing the mode can reduce this. In Kings there are cycle to work, season ticket loans and someone to encourage people on trains.

Anna: “We (Bristol) don’t allow anyone to drive and park to work within a two-mile radius. We have various car clubs and car sharing schemes for those that live further afield and do come in. We have a cycle to work scheme, we run free cycle clinics, we’ve changed our infrastructure to allow for more cycling and the parking of bikes. Within my team we look after the transport as well and we work with the council and run various bus services for the students. We have electric buses and ensure that they're running regularly in order for people to get around. We also have a business travel toolkit which we’ve just launched, and that enables people to make better decisions, lower carbon decisions around their commuting and business travel, so flying economy rather than business, taking the train etc. And we have installed a lot of electric car charging points as well at the university."

As for targets? Anna has developed a business travel diary and carbon calculator.

“The idea is that people will fill in this for a year and they have to say whether they could reduce the carbon in their travel and what’s stopping them and the hope with that is that it will give us a vaguely realistic projection of how far we could reduce it.”

So, can we get to net zero?

The University of Bristol’s achievement of reducing CO2 emissions by 27% while increasing the scale of their operations by around 50% is quite impressive. They are a quarter of the way there. If our electricity grid becomes ‘green’ and we stop using gas as source of heat, universities should be able to reduce their emissions by 50% in tandem with this energy transition.

To go further will require universities and other research institutions to engage their suppliers and staff in the hard to measure and ever expanding criteria encompassed by Scope 3.

Incentivising staff to take public transport, cycle and walk to work. Choosing suppliers who have their scope 1 and 2 targets under control, even if it costs more.

We can expect scientists to have to include the carbon impact of their research when they apply for grants. The LEAF accreditation scheme has been working with NERC, UKRI and Wellcome. One aim is that it will become an accreditation similar to Athena Swan and be included within grant conditions.

Whatever the eventual achievements, the journey towards zero is a journey towards efficiency, saving money, time, unnecessary use of animals, and probably better science.

More information

TEC: energy procurement on a not-for-profit basis

LEAF: Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework initiated at UCL and now applied by many UK universities

Categorising carbon emissions (Scope):

LEAN: the Laboratory Efficiency Action Network