When Warming the Lab Can Cool the Planet

Scientific research comes with a surprisingly high environmental cost; but even small changes can have a big impact, as TBSI found out

Mar 31, 2022Sustainability

Postgrad Anna Hastings and the 800 MHz NMR spectrometer

One of the 47 ultra freezers in TBSI. © Trevor Butterworth

By Aisling Cameron

It was not until recently that the consequences of biomedical research on the environment were put under the microscope. Sustainability Advisor, Michelle Hallahan, is spearheading the efforts to reduce our carbon footprint here in Trinity College Dublin.

“Our carbon footprint is created largely of three main things, energy consumption, travel, and procurement”, says Hallahan. “People think carbon footprint is all about the energy they use, it’s about everything. Everything we purchase has a carbon footprint.”

The Climate Action Plan 2021, finalised in October of 2021 by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, sets ambitious goals for reducing Ireland’s energy consumption by 51 percent by 2030. For the biomedical side of Trinity, an obvious first step is to look at the amount of energy consumed by laboratory equipment and machinery. 


Research labs require machinery that have a heavy energy usage, and one of the most crucial is the ultra-freezer, which is maintained at -80°C. Ultra-freezers are needed for long-term storage and preservation of biological materials like DNA, RNA, serum, antibodies and enzymes.

Data from My Green Lab, a nonprofit organization that encourages sustainable lab practices, shows that in a single day an ultra-freezer consumes as much energy as an entire household. To get a sense of how big an environmental footprint and financial cost this represented for TBSI, Dr. Keith Alden, TBSI’s Operations Manager, ran a preliminary experiment using Codema energy meters, which he rented from public libraries.

Alden counted 47 ultra-freezers in TBSI, each of which emitted an estimated 2,522 kg of carbon annually. Increasing the temperature by ten degrees would reduce an ultra-freezer’s carbon emissions by 577 kg (23 percent), which would mean that TBSI could reduce its carbon missions by 24,000 kg per year. After reviewing Alden’s findings, TBSI’s board agreed to implement the temperature increase as an institute-wide policy.

“I wanted to be certain that if I was going to encourage researchers to change the storage regime for their samples, it wasn’t going to affect their integrity”, said Alden. “But there have been numerous studies showing that biological samples such as DNA, RNA, antibodies and others can be safely stored at -70°C.” 

Alden points out that raising the temperature will also reduce the freezers’ service intervals and prolong their life. “Also, ultra-freezers generate lots of heat, so they are all kept in rooms at 16°C”, says Alden. “If we run them at -70°C rather than -80°C, they’ll emit less heat and we can reduce the draw on the ventilation and air conditioning systems.”

But there’s more researchers can do, some of it simple housekeeping. “A lot of researchers will leave behind samples and chemicals once they’ve left Trinity and there’s nobody there to clear it out for them”, says Hallahan, “So, these samples take up space in the freezer, and pretty soon, the freezer is full, a new freezer has to be bought, which then doubles the carbon footprint of ultra-freezers in that lab. There’s so much inefficiency and mismanagement within human society on so many levels that contribute to excessive carbon footprint”

Michelle Hallahan, Sustainability Advisor to the Office of the Provost at Trinity College Dublin. Photo © Trevor Butterworth

Glassware and reusable equipment became a thing of the past in science labs as researchers opted to use cost-effective, convenient, disposable alternatives. Deemed ‘unrecyclable’ due to contamination concerns, most of this plastic waste ends up being incinerated. Consumable plastics used in research labs make up an estimated 2% of all plastic waste generated globally each year. “It is staggering,” says Alden, “how much waste comes from research”.

“The estimate from My Green Labs is that globally, bench scientists generate about a thousand kilograms of plastic waste in one year”, says Hallahan, “whereas the average Irish citizen, by comparison, generates about sixty kilograms per year”. 

Reducing travel will likely be the hardest sell to academics, not least after two years of lockdown. While many scientific conferences successfully went online, they couldn’t replicate the personal interaction that takes place at these events. Many universities now recommend to travel to an event only if it is five days or more, to offset some of the carbon output of international scientific events.

Scientists at NatPro, a Trinity Centre investigating the use of natural products in medicine, have a strategy to tackle this problem. “We research conferences of interest to us and then we prioritise which ones to attend, or whether there is a virtual option, and who should travel”, says Dr. Gaia Scalabrino, Executive Director at NatPro. “At a local level, we also look at how we commute to work and travel around Ireland. Starting with small daily changes helps being in a favourable mindset to address bigger challenges.”

My Green Lab Guide

My Green Lab offers certifications awarded on the basis of a lab’s efforts to cut their energy, water and resource consumption. Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience (TCIN) achieved Platinum certification in June 2021, while NatPro, located in School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, achieved Green certification in January 2021, the highest level of certification available. The Green Lab committee at TCIN, headed by PhD students published the Green Lab Guide back in February of 2021 to outline the changes other labs can make to become more sustainable. 

Simple steps that have a great impact listed in the Green Lab Guide include the traffic light system for turning on and off machinery to save energy. “If something cannot be turned off ever, you have a red sticker on it”, says Hallahan. “If it can be turned off once you finish doing your experiments, you have a yellow sticker on it, and if it can be turned off at any point in time, you have a green sticker.” Machines such as centrifuges, water baths, microscopes, heating blocks, biological safety cabinets and fume hood can be switched off when not in use with minimal downtime between users.

Small and easy changes made by individuals in the lab can influence others to follow suit and make a great impact. “The ripple effect of one person making that decision has huge repercussions,”, says Hallahan. “Margaret Mead, one of the twentieth centuries great anthropologists, said never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has”. 

“The reward for doing this is substantial”, says Alden, “the effort is minimal, and it is just one step in making researchers more aware of the impact of their work on the environment because we are not separate from it”.

Aisling Cameron finished her B.A. (Mod) in 2020, specialising in Molecular Medicine and subsequently completed her MSc in Immunotherapeutics in 2021 from Trinity College Dublin. She is currently working as a lab manager and research assistant in the lab of David Finlay in TBSI. She is interested in immunology, immunometabolism and science communication. 

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