Monday, October 26, 2009

Conscientious conservation?

A colleague once said at a bar that she didn't believe in "conservation genetics". I'm not quite sure which aspect she was disputing, but one certain conflict is between gearing research toward conservation, while watching chemicals and consumables go into the waste stream. Most of the reactions in my lab are done using pipet tips and tubes made of virgin polypropylene. Nobody wants to recycle this stuff - even though 99% of the chemicals we use are fairly meek reagents like ethanol, water, nucleotides, and barnacle DNA, there's just no way to guarantee the waste stream coming from a building that does molecular research (e.g. you'd probably balk if that plastic got melted down and used for toys). Researchers have enough problems with reactions going wrong to also worry about whether their supplies are contaminated with the products of reactions past. Still, we have to constantly consider how we can minimize waste in the lab.

Lab Waste from Eva Amsen on Vimeo.

As a marine biologist, I'm also very conscious where all this plastic eventually ends up. I'm entertaining ideas for tip and tube recycling, though it is barely worth the effort for a single lab to do so: my lab probably consumes about 10kg of virgin polypropylene a year, into the trash. Super bummer. But that recycling effort could be balanced out if I just got my entire lab (including me) to stop drinking so much soda! Better would be to find institutional solutions, and we're a long way off on that.

Of course a lab is more than plastic. There are chemicals - which we've chosen to avoid some of the nastier ones, like ethidium bromide (using Ames-tested GelRed instead), isotopes (fluorescent-labeled primers), but still must use a little bit of polyacrylamide and a few other things in very small quantities that you wouldn't want to put in a smoothie. There are heating and cooling costs, which we can't do a lot about in our grumpy 1980's-era building at the University of Georgia (we'll assume that under budget constraints physical plant is doing what they can in that regard, though we did install some motion sensors on lights in the auxiliary rooms).

And then, there are all the gizmos. For the holidays I got a fun gift: a Kill-A-Watt. As procrastination during grant writing, I decided not only to check the energy consumption of things at home, but things in the lab. I don't know whether I believe paying to balance carbon emissions works (though at $3/month, I do it anyway), but it is interesting to know what the footprint of a lab like mine is. To make a long story short, it's mostly about the computers. Each computer in my lab used around 5kWh/day - up to $150 in annual energy bills, and actually the only things that compete with computers are my big chromatography fridge and my ultracold freezers (the -80° will use around 6000kWh/year!). Anyway, by unplugging some things that weren't being effectively used - one of the refrigerators, some water baths, an incubator, 2 of the computers - and ensuring that the rest were using the most appropriate power-saving settings - I cut the kWh consumption of my lab (only counting plug-in stuff) by over 10%.

The question is, how does this energy usage affect the science? One could argue that my research program hasn't expanded to fill the resources I had available, or that I can only cut back to the detriment of productivity. Only time will tell! We may have to devise a metric for productivity per kWh - but right now if I calculate my Hirsch index per kWh, it is not the thrilling kind of number I want to run to the administration with. I better get back to work.


Kevin Zelnio said...

Good to see you blogging John! I wonder if you can prove you use less energy in your lab, the administration will kick back some of your overhead costs from grants. You could probably support a graduate student on an RA for another semester from saving a years worth of energy costs! Wishful thinking I suppose ;)

John Wares said...

Hey Kevin, I've wished the same thing many times. I'm working with a group at UGA to try and provide such incentives to labs or at least departments, but the sad truth is nobody is held accountable for energy consumption. Labs aren't individually monitored, and departments don't pay the bill on the building directly. Bummer.

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