Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Wastage in labs

A recent news feature in Nature highlights the large amounts of energy wasted in science labs across the country (and world). Now, given the requirements of most science labs (which require specific lighting, extensive fume cupboards that circulate air, tissue culture hoods, plenty of electronic equipment and so on), the energy usage is expectedly more than most offices and almost all residences. However, what is rarely appreciated is the amount of energy wasted in many of these labs.

This news feature highlights many of those areas. An important point it makes is that the costs of this energy (in terms of electricity or water bills) aren’t paid by the labs themselves, but goes under some mysterious “overhead” expenses that universities bear. So, most scientists don’t realize how much the energy they use costs them. So, to quote a section from the article:

“ Laboratories consume between five and ten times more energy than office buildings — but they are also rarer and more diverse in design, making neat, generalized solutions to profligacy hard to find. Add that to concerns about safety and a lack of transparency in costs (few scientists know or care what their lab's electricity bill is), and you get a 'that's just the way they are' mentality. That's the mindset that the Labs21 programme, an initiative started by the DoE and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), exists to challenge.”

There appears to be a slow realization that this is a problem, and newer equipment (with energy efficient ratings, or automatic adjustments to reduce energy when not in use). But to me this is not enough. What surprises me more though is an apparent contradiction between the amount of wastage (both of energy and of resources) in labs, and the personal lives of scientists themselves.

Many, many scientists I know are extremely conscious of the environment, resources and wastage in their personal lives. It is hardly unusual to see a university professor bicycling or walking to work, or driving a hybrid car, or recycling with vehemence. Many scientists I know are even going beyond the obvious, installing solar panels in their houses or using only bio-diesel or vegetable oil in their cars or boats. If a survey is taken on SUV ownership, I’m pretty certain a far lower percentage of scientists own SUVs than the average population at large. But in their labs there is invariably an excessive use of plastic (especially with pipette tips or pipettes), or taps are left running, or the lights remain switched on even when there is no one in the lab, or computers aren’t shut down after use…….I could go on for ever. It sometimes drives me nuts.

But why is this so? Is it only because we don’t see the costs of the wastage around us? Do we feel that the lab is somehow separate from the rest of the world (and our lives outside the lab)? Or, is it (like the news feature says) because that’s how it is, and so we just continue it?


Wavefunction said...

On the other hand, most graduate students I know are extremely wasteful of energy...it is appalling to see all the lights in all the labs burning bright throughout the weekend, even if nobody is in there.
All computer monitors and printers likewise remain switched on all the time.

Sunil said...

yup.....it sometimes drives me nuts. But one tries to do what one can.....

Anonymous said...

Lots of companies recycle pipette tips and other lab waste.

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