Rethinking Research Laboratories

Despite their small physical footprint, research laboratories are the primary source of carbon emissions in academic institutions. With universities and research facilities aiming to eliminate carbon emissions, there is a pressing need to revolutionize lab facilities to reduce emissions.

Despite occupying far less area than offices and classrooms, research laboratories have been consistently ranked as the single largest contributor to carbon emissions in academic institutions. Total contributions can range from 37% here at Penn to well over 60% at institutions like Oxford University, and the major culprits are labs that require 24/7 airflow regulation (fume hoods, cleanrooms, etc.) and thermal variation or regulation (freezers, incubators, ovens, etc.)—a subset that includes most biological, medical, and chemical laboratories.

Given that an increasing number of universities are announcing their plans to reduce or eliminate carbon emissions in the next decade, rethinking lab facilities and individual labs must be a key focus for universities in the years ahead. On a national level, these same concerns apply to national labs, research institutions (such as hospitals), and private research and development facilities. These labs can consume up to ten times more energy than office buildings, with national labs, in particular, using up to 4 terawatt-hours annually—that’s the annual energy consumption of the country of Ghana.

And while many institutions, such as the University of Pennsylvania, have made great strides in implementing renewable energy sources, replacing one sort of energy for another is not enough. Energy conservation can not only reduce costs for the school, but also allow the further use of renewable energy in the surrounding community. Thus, efforts to decrease energy needs in research facilities must be at the individual, school-wide, and national policy level.

At a school level, various initiatives to use energy more efficiently have been implemented at institutions across the nation. Right here at Penn, labs have the opportunity to pledge a Green Labs Commitment from Penn Sustainability, where they commit to a series of daily, monthly, and annual activities designed to reduce energy consumption, such as turning off inactive equipment, sharing equipment with neighboring labs, regularly inspecting and maintaining equipment, increasing freezer temperatures from -80°C to -70°C, and more.

So far, the impetus of energy conservation has been on individual facilities or labs making conscious choices to be more sustainable. Programs targeting individual labs, such as Harvard University’s Shut the Sash program, has helped reduce over 300 metric tons of carbon emissions annually by encouraging researchers to operate their fume hoods efficiently. On the product side, labs can purchase innovative technology, from fume hoods that automatically close to freezers that require less energy to cool.

The problem with placing the responsibility of energy conservation on individual labs, however, is that it will never be their top priority. The purpose of a laboratory is to gain valuable research results, so practices that researchers view as “getting in the way of results” will be met with resistance if they have not been tailored to suit the specific workflow of that specific research group.

One potential method that the broader institute may support this transition is through the establishment of research sustainability officers. These officers would work directly with laboratories to design custom energy solutions, benchmark performance against target values, and distribute funds to labs that wish to replace energy-consuming equipment. In the long term, institutions should work towards building autonomous energy conservation into the design of research facilities, such as natural light conservation, temperature-moderating architecture, built-in monitoring systems, and energy generation from the waste heat of cooling equipment.

While building research facilities to be inherently energy-conserving will likely be the future of green labs, bottom-up strategies that focus on changing researcher mindsets are critical to ensure maximum efficiency in engineered spaces. One way to do so, as promoted by the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories ( I2SL), is to require sustainability incentives at a grant and national funding level. I2SL has created the Million Advocates for Sustainable Science campaign, which asks the U.S. government to require descriptions of sustainable practices in every grant or proposal application to a federal institution, rewarding labs that have demonstrated a commitment to impactful energy practices through green lab certifications.

This is a hopeful story. Particularly at leading research institutions like Penn, there has been strong support for establishing green lab initiatives and rewarding motivated research groups. While federal funding institutions have not explicitly stated their sustainability goals, there is a growing trend in the federal government towards strong action to achieve net zero carbon emissions. As a student aspiring to become a full-time researcher, I’m excited to see the progress to be made.

This insight is a part of our Undergraduate Seminar Fellows’ Student Blog Series. Learn more about the Undergraduate Climate and Energy Seminar.

Linda Lin

Undergraduate Seminar Fellow
Linda Lin is a third-year undergraduate studying Materials Science and Engineering at the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Lin is also a 2023 Undergraduate Student Fellow.