Sash, Chillers and Power Hungry Accelerators – The Embarrassing Truth about Modern Science Laboratories

A drawing illustrating the Carbon Lab Print: Fume hoods that are left open can use the same amount of energy over a given period as 3.5 homes. Image: NaturPhilosophieCome in.  Step into the pristine environment of a modern science laboratory.  With all its cutting-edge equipment neatly arranged and organised work spaces clearly delineated, you might just be forgiven for thinking it is a model of sustainability but…  Look a bit closer!  You might be surprised…

The Carbon Lab-print

When so much scientific research currently focuses on creating technologies designed to reduce our collective carbon footprint, the embarrassing realisation that research laboratories themselves are actually some of the worst environmental offenders is only now beginning to sink in.

Many scientific laboratories require air-conditioned environments running 24/7, and contain specialist equipment that is unavoidably power- and water-hungry.

“Research labs consume 10 times more energy and at least four times more water per unit area than office spaces.”

Allison Paradise, founder of Californian non-profit organization, My Green Lab.

Necessary or Evil?

Still you may think…  At least part of this waste would appear to be a necessary evil, right?

For example, with experiments often producing hazardous or contaminated waste, single-use plastic remains a key to maintaining safety.

However, according to MyGreenLab estimate, laboratories discard around 5.5 billion kilograms of plastic annually worldwide.

That’s enough to cover an area 23 times the size of Manhattan (59.1 km2) ankle-deep.

What About Us Theorists?

Even the theorists should refrain from feeling too smug.

Supercomputers are masters at carrying out complex calculations and simulations that were previously impossible.  However, they consume a lot of energy and resources.

Buddy Bland and Summit scientific supercomputer. Source: InsideHPC

Currently, the World’s fastest scientific supercomputer is IBM’s SummitScientists use Summit in various fields of research, from cosmology to medicine and climatology.

But the US-based 200-petaflops computer requires 17,000 litres of water a minute to keep it cool.

17,000 litres of water per minute!

But this doesn’t mean nothing can be done to ensure scientific sustainability.


Dealing with the Environmental Culprits

The Sash

Take the fume hood or sash, which is used to suck hazardous fumes away.  An essential piece of kit in many research labs.

If left open, as is common, fume hoods can consume as much energy as 3.5 homes over the same period.

The Chiller

What about those ultra low-temperature freezers?  Many of these are unnecessarily cold, often storing only a few or even expired samples.

Each ultra low freezer uses as much energy every day as an average home.

Three Simple Steps for Sustainability

Improving the sustainability of scientific research means looking at every aspect of how research is conducted: from using outlet timersreusable glassware and retiring old, inefficient freezers to upgrading buildings, and using smart technologies to improve energy efficiency.

And most importantly, changing scientists’ attitudes towards energy, water and waste.  Even considering different ways to commute to campus, such as carpooling.

My Green Lab offers three main solutions for science to be more green.

  • One is a recognised standard for laboratory sustainability, to which more than 200 labs across North America have signed up.
  • There’s an eco-label for laboratory products like a food nutrition label that provides clear, transparent information about environmental impact.
  • Finally, it offers an energy star rating for one of the worst carbon offenders in the lab – those ultralow-temperature freezers.

Upgrading Labs and Attitudes in Bristol

The effort to support scientific labs in becoming environmentally friendly is more than an American endeavour.

In the United Kingdom, the University of Bristol  recently declared a “climate emergency” in response to students’ concerns about their future.

Although they occupy only 6% of the university’s space, Bristol’s laboratories account for 40% of the total energy, water and waste.

Bristol’s pledge is fourfold:

    • becoming a net carbon neutral campus by 2030
    • decreasing their transport footprint
    • ensuring students have the opportunity to undertake education for sustainable development
    • developing a strategy to include social and environmental considerations into their procurement process.
“De-ice! For the love of… De-ice!!” Image:

The university’s entire Biomedical Sciences Building – consisting of 25 teams and over 170 individual labs – won a 100% Green Lab Accreditation, a UK-recognized badge of sustainability achievement.

A range of actions, including replacing energy-inefficient laboratory kit, introducing a lab-equipment sharing system, and implementing lab plastic recycling and reuse schemes resulted in an overall  £85,000 cut in the university’s energy bill over two years.

A LEAF out of the Sustainability Book

Bristol is now working with other United Kingdom universities to develop a successor to the Green Lab Accreditation called the Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework (LEAF).

Much like the Green Lab Certification in the States, or the UK’s own S-Lab Awards honouring international labs for green laboratory design, management and operation since 2012, the LEAF accreditation will be given based on various lab sustainability criteria:

    • procurement, 
    • waste, 
    • equipment and 
    • ventilation.

The programme produces metrics on savings, in terms of savings of both CO2 and cash, to allow baselines, targets and measures to be developed.

With LEAF now being piloted in 16 UK universities this year, the government and the public will expect greater transparency and responsible spending from universities.

LEAF provides a tool and a means to do this.

And while the School of Physics at Bristol had previously not applied for any green lab awards, it has now signed up for LEAF.

A Game of Sustainability

Other global initiatives aim to “game-ify” lab sustainability.

For example, in the Freezer Challenge, scientific laboratories are awarded points for reducing their freezer energy demands, while Shut the Sash is a competition that started in 2005 to combat the high energy consumption of fume hoods.

But why are so many labs still seemingly averse to going green?

Evil, but Necessary?

Not surprisingly, the answer is complicated.  But it boils down to ingrained preconceptions and a lack of motivation.

A drawing showing plastic laboratory waste piling up in a bin. Image: NaturPhilosophie
Plastic laboratory waste can end up in landfill when it should be recycled. Image: NaturPhilosophie

A common belief is that green lab practices can “hamper research quality” or even be bad for health and safety.

The truth is actually the opposite.

For example, efficient ultralow-temperature freezers that are maintained correctly have longer lifespans.  They are much less likely to break down, thus improving sample security and long-term equipment costs.

The more environmentally sustainable approach is also the safer and the more economical…


With their focus trained on producing high-quality research, motivating scientists to prioritise sustainability is proving difficult.

Many researchers feel they simply do not have the time to think about green practices.

That is why the University of Bristol offers students the chance to volunteer in research laboratories to help work through the sustainability criteria.

“This benefits the students by allowing them access to research labs that they wouldn’t ordinarily have, as well as gain a knowledge of the underbelly and workings of the university.”

Anna Lewis, University of Bristol, Sustainable Labs Officer

Big Labs, Big Issues

On a rather different scale, managing large scientific experiments and facilities necessarily consume vast amounts of resources and energy – more sustainable requires an even more holistic approach.

The Francis Crick Institute is a huge biomedical research laboratory in central London.  It cost £700 million to build, but it does incorporate sustainability principles into the very design of the building.

For instance, the building uses an on-site combined heat and power system with 1700 m2 of solar panels installed on its south-facing roof.

And it incorporates “plug-and-play” laboratories that ensure equipment and facilities can be shared and readily adapted to future needs, while a third of the floor area is given over to plant space.

There are even roof gardens to attract wildlife.

There is so much going on that we are all happy to share to collectively reduce our impact on the environment.  Our BREEAM Excellent rating was a great achievement for the design and build of the Crick.  We are now going for the BREEAM In Use accreditation, which should really make a difference to the individual labs.” 

Rajnika Hirani, Head of Sustainability and Business     at the Francis Crick Institute

The Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) rating is an internationally recognised certification rewarding a building’s sustainability, measures sustainable improvements through operational efficiency.

Over in Sweden, all waste heat from the ongoing construction of the European Spallation Source built in Lund, will eventually be connected to the local heating system rather than being vented into the atmosphere.

But for many big-physics labs, sustainability cannot be retrospectively ingrained into the design.

The Power-Hungry Accelerator

Consider the CERN high energy physics laboratory near Geneva.

Largely conceived and built years before sustainability was even a consideration, the thousands of huge, helium-cooled super-conducting magnets and countless other components that make the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and other particle accelerators on the site, consume vast amounts of energy.

A photograph showing the inside workings of the CMS detector at CERN.
In terms of particle accelerators, CERN is the largest and most energy-hungry scientific facility in the World, and only the CMS took energy consumption into account for its design..

For example, the four huge detectors installed in the LHC were intended to last for the life of the facility.  However, only one of them, the CMS, actually took account of energy consumption in its original design.

Even the magnets’ superconducting cables require as much energy to be cooled to their operating temperature (1.9 K) as they save in carrying current without resistance.

Over the course of a year, CERN uses 1.3 TWh of electric energy when it is in operation.

Enough to power about 300,000 UK homes for a year.

“CERN uses around one third of the energy consumption of the canton of Geneva – equivalent to about 300,000 UK homes.

We are around one third of the energy consumption of the canton of Geneva, or 0.2% of the total electrical consumption in France.”

Frédérick Bordry, CERN’s director of accelerators and technology.

To improve CERN’s energy efficiency on a limited budget, sustainability improvements had to be prioritised .

“Our new buildings do have photovoltaics (PV) on the roofs and a lot of insulation, but if I have one or two million euros to spend, obviously it is better to inject it into the 90% of energy consumption [used by the machines, detectors and computing] rather than the 10% [the buildings use].”

One example of this spending in action is the ongoing renovation of the PS East Experiment Area, one of the oldest and largest structures at CERN, housing multiple beam lines.

“We will install new special software, and new magnets and power converters that will run in pulsed mode instead of DC mode.  These will save 90% of the energy.”

CERN has also introduced design criteria for new accelerators and equipment that focus on sustainability, including the 10-year running cost, instead of simply the purchase price. 

“When people are upgrading or buying new equipment, they see “the consequences of their spending to inform their consciences” in the form of a “virtual invoice”.”

Of course, there is a limit to what CERN can do to go green.

CERN will have to wait until the LHC’s successor – whatever it may be – is installed in the 2040s and 2050s before it can claim its flagship accelerator has any meaningful green credentials.

Towards a More Responsible Future

It’s a cliché but… With great power comes great responsibility.

Upgrading or replacing the other energy-hungry CERN accelerators will take some considerable time, given that some are as old as the organisation itself.

But with energy efficiency and sustainability in the mind at CERN, even high-energy science is showing that it is taking its environmental responsibility seriously in leading efforts to reduce OUR COLLECTIVE CARBON FOOTPRINT.