Saving Energy in the Lab

The Chair of Applied Biochemistry is the first at TU Berlin to be certified as a “green lab.” We take a tour and provide specific tips for immediate implementation.

Professor Dr. Jens Kurreck was an activist even as a first-grader. Plans were underway to straighten Berlin's Teltow Canal - and kingfisher nesting sites were in danger. “Together with two or three other first-graders, I collected a whopping 50 cents for protest initiatives,” says Kurreck grinning. While Teltow Canal was indeed straightened, Kurrek nevertheless maintained his dedication to the environment. His Chair of Applied Biochemistry is now the first at TU Berlin to seek certification as a “Green Lab.” The certification is awarded by the non-profit organization My Green Lab in the USA, recognized by the United Nations’ Race to Zero campaign as a key measure for its aim to make medical and pharmaceutical companies and labs climate neutral by 2050.

Bronze medal from My Green Lab is just the beginning

“In our initial assessment, we already achieved bronze status. But that’s just the first step,” says Kurreck as we begin a tour of his lab together with Bernd Krostitz, a member of technical staff at the academic chair. My Green Lab not only certifies current practices but also recommends energy-saving changes in each lab. “To provide a list of suitable recommendations, it actually conducted an anonymous online survey of all lab staff, compiled the results, and derived recommendations on the basis of those,” explains Kurreck, waving a stack of paper.

Environmental polluters through and through

“The worst part is, it’s not rocket science. And yet, we still didn’t think about all the ways we could be saving energy. Afterwards you think about how just how badly you were polluting the environment,” says Krostitz, stopping next to several refrigerators and freezers. As he opens one, it seems in dire need of being defrosted. Cardboard boxes and plastic containers appear to be covered in ice. Krostitz takes one and blows – a fine layer of snow flies off. “This isn’t water ice, but carbon dioxide frozen out of the air,” he explains. This is because the freezer operates at minus 80 degrees Celsius and houses sensitive samples such as virus cultures. The academic chair has two such ultra deep freezers, which make up a quarter of its total energy consumption.

It was only through a consumption measurement of all electrical appliances that Krostitz and Kurreck’s attention turned towards these energy-guzzling cooling devices. They subsequently identified two possible energy-saving measures: First, one of the freezer’s temperature can be raised to minus 70 degrees Celsius for less sensitive samples. This already contributes to significant energy savings, because as the temperature decreases, power consumption increases exponentially. “The second energy-saving measure shouldn’t even be necessary in an ideal laboratory,” continues Kurreck. It’s simply to tidy up. “When you search for samples for several minutes with the door open, the contents are exposed to a lot of heat. Plus, you have to do it barehanded because of the small tubes, which is not so much fun at minus 80 degrees either."

Freezer challenges from My Green Lab

Tidying up the sample freezers was no trivial task and took several weeks, in part because the academic chair developed a classification and organization system to prevent disorder when storing them in the future. Kurreck points to a photo of a lab table covered in small cardboard boxes: Remnants of a single research project, completed long ago which were removed from the freezer. My Green Lab has identified this same problem and regularly holds “freezer challenges” among its members.

50 percent savings

In nearly every room of our tour, Jens Kurreck and Bernd Krostitz are able to report on saved kilowatt hours (kWh). The 20-year-old refrigerator, which should theoretically consume 350 kWh per year, but has now been measured at 700 kWh, has been replaced by a modern unit using 90 kWh. The autoclaves in the next room: large, washing machine-like devices that render biological waste harmless at 134 degrees Celsius and two bars of overpressure. Previously, waste was thrown into these as it was produced and the machine turned on immediately. Now, waste is collected until an autoclave can be filled completely. After more than a month of following these new guidelines, the lab has shown energy savings of fifty percent. With a consumption of about 5,000 kWh of electricity per year, this is not an insignificant share of the academic chair's total consumption of 70,000 kWh.

Savings potential equal to the annual consumption of a four-person household

Their sterile workbenches with contamination protection (cleanbench) also have a high consumption, about 1,000 kWh per device per year. With six devices at the academic chair, this amounts to about 6,000 kWh per year - and there are almost 50 workbenches in the entire building on TU Berlin’s Wedding Campus. Continuous air flow provides an invisible wall in front of the actual work surface, preventing germs from escaping and entering. “If we switch on standby mode when we aren’t using the workbench, it only uses a tenth of the energy. If it isn’t being used for several hours, it can be turned off completely,” explains Krostitz. According to his calculations, this allows the energy consumption of the workbenches to be reduced by nearly one third, that is approximately 2,000 kWh. "That's only a little less than the annual consumption of my four-person household."

At the University’s expense

In the last room of our energy-savings tour, a doctoral candidate is liquefying agarose gel in a small glass beaker in the microwave. This is needed for gel electrophoresis, the standard method used today to separate and identify DNA fragments. In the past, this agarose gel was always kept liquid in a 60-degree oven, explain Krostitz and Kurreck. The electricity consumption for this equaled one third of the consumption of a four-person household, or more than 280 euros in electricity costs per year. “This was all at the University’s expense and is not paid for by the budgets of the individual academic chairs. To be honest, we just hadn’t noticed it previously,” says Kurreck. Bernd Krostitz adds that such a change in thinking cannot be achieved overnight, pointing to the many signs on the fume hoods in the laboratory. They caution that the sliding window in front of these workstations with air extraction should be closed immediately after use - reducing power by two-thirds. “With a little bit of pressure and several reminders, it’s possible to achieve commitment of 95 percent.”

Others invited to follow suit

Jens Kurreck and Bernd Krostitz want to encourage other labs at TU Berlin to join the My Green Lab initiative. They are happy to answer any questions and exchange ideas. The academic chair has a sustainability group with seven members which meets once a month. Through their collective intelligence, they have already come up with many measures themselves, including the use of a mobile electricity consumption meter. However, the researchers hadn’t yet considered some of the suggestions from My Green Lab – such as bulk ordering consumables and supplies to reduce packaging and transport energy. Kurreck advises one simple place to start is with the lighting and replacing fluorescent tubes on the ceiling with LED lamps. He hopes to reduce the academic chair’s energy costs by one third through all the measures combined. It is not only the environment and the fight against climate change that would benefit from this, Kurreck emphasizes: “Even if this doesn't have an impact on your own budget, you ultimately gain something from it. Because when the University saves money, it secures our basic funding. And there may be more funds available for other important things, such as building renovations.”

Author: Wolfgang Richter

Green Lab Heroes

Three labs in Berlin have already been certified by My Green Lab. Three others – including Jens Kurreck’s – are undergoing certification. The Chair of Applied Biochemistry is the first, and until now, only lab, to do so at TU Berlin. A total of 62 labs in Germany, and 1,400 globally, are certified or seeking certification.

TU Berlin’s Equipment Renewal Program

Occupational Health and Safety Services and Environmental Protection (SDU) is organizing an equipment renewal program for TU Berlin’s academic chairs. This comprises financial assistance from the Central University Administration (ZUV) to procure new energy-saving equipment in exchange for older inefficient models.
The savings in operating costs and the amortization period of the new device are calculated using an economic efficiency calculation. The ZUV and investing unit then conclude an agreement to fund the replacement of the equipment. After the old equipment has been decommissioned and the new equipment has been put into operation, the investing unit receives 95 percent of the operating cost savings booked to its budget by ZUV for the duration of the amortization period.