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UMD Lab Sheds 50,000 pounds of CO2 Emissions Annually

Research labs at universities consume copious amounts of energy. For instance, a single chemical fume hood in a lab can consume as much energy as three average American homes. Toss in a few lab freezers holding a constant -80 degrees Celsius temperature and energy consumption adds up quickly. While research allows us to live healthier and better lives, simple shifts in behavior can reduce the environmental impacts associated with research. As part of the Climate Action Plan to achieve carbon neutrality on campus, a collaborative effort between the Office of Sustainability and the Department of Engineering & Energy began to investigate sustainability opportunities in labs. The Green Labs Initiative is in the early phase of serving as a resource for labs who want to identify ways to make their research more sustainable. Part of this initiative involves engaging with researchers to help guide behaviors into more sustainable ones. “When I interviewed researchers in labs, many of them weren’t aware that keeping fume hoods closed is the easiest and biggest thing that can be done to reduce the environmental impact of labs,” says Emery Wolf, UMD Green Labs Associate. “When ventilation can be reduced, energy is saved, and less carbon is released to the atmosphere.” Now Wolf is trying to get the word out to others about reducing ventilation in research labs. “After fume hoods, freezers and plug loads are the next biggest targets in labs,” he adds. Dr. Norma Andrews is a research professor in the Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics Department, in the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences. The Andrews’ lab focuses on the cell biology of intracellular protozoan parasites and mechanisms of plasma membrane repair. In addition to this critical research, her lab was able to reduce energy consumption from fume hoods, freezers, and much more. Taking the sustainability lead for the lab, student Charmaine Yuan ‘20, a Biology & Psychology double major and a Sustainability minor, became the Green Labs change agent in her research group. "I was so excited when I was invited to serve as a Green Labs change agent and work as a liaison between the Andrews Lab and the Office of Sustainability,” says Yuan. “The program is a great opportunity to promote more sustainable research in my lab." What began as a walk-through of the lab and presentation to the members in Dr. Andrews’ group about simple changes the group could make, ended up stirring excitement to see how big of an impact the scientists could have without impeding on their research. “We learned a lot from Emery's visit and immediately implemented his suggestions by ‘retiring’ one old -80°C freezer, defrosting refrigerators, adding timers to water baths, and keeping fume hoods closed when not in use,” said Dr. Andrews.  “I did not know it could be that easy to make significant energy savings! It was great to learn that there are many ways to reduce energy use in labs and that many of these measures do not affect at all the research." Yuan and Dr. Andrews helped the research group go even further, consolidating samples within two of their Ultra Low Temp (ULT) freezers (sometimes called “-80’s”) which allowed them to fully decommission a freezer, saving around 25 kWh of energy per day, or as much as an entire single-family home. “There is a real tragedy of the commons that can happen in labs,” says Wolf. “When there are multiple projects going on at once, it’s easy for equipment to get left on, and having strategies such as timers, or regular walkthroughs with the lab group can identify these issues and reduce energy consumption.”

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