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Towards more sustainable labs and practices

Efforts by the Physical Chemistry department at Uppsala University

In the Physical Chemistry department, a lot of us are working on topics that we hope someday will make the world a little more sustainable – ranging from solar fuels, solar cells, to other processes that are light induced. Therefore, some of us really think we should do better, and hence started a sustainability group. If you are working in a lab yourself, you may know that all labs look different, and therefore, different measures for sustainability can be taken. Ours for example, are for sample preparation, spectroscopy and electrochemistry as the focus lies on the characterization of photochemical processes (e.g. with lasers and other instruments). As such, we use quite a lot of glass vials and want dry solvents. Which are the first two measures we have taken as part of the “Towards greener research, together” network initiative and funding. The third one is still ongoing and less straightforward: challenging current lab practices and thinking about safety and sustainability.

Starting with one of the easier ones: Increasing the life cycle of small glass vials.

I hope this is not new to you, but glassware is not a single use item. Their production is very energy extensive.

However, in our labs, they are often treated as such due to concerns of contamination and cumbersome washing. This is unfortunate as they are typically made from borosilicate glass, the standard glass used in scientific laboratories due to its low thermal expansion and high resistance to material stress. At the same time, borosilicate glass also has one of the highest melting points for glasses and needs high temperatures during fabrication and recycling. Since quality of washing depends on the individual, and contamination is a high concern in our labs, washed glass vials are not reused. As a solution, we created an efficient but simple washing procedure for glass vials: (i) Collect the vials in a rack, secure them with another rack or a silicon cooling rack (ii) submerge the rack stack in a base bath (and/or acid bath) with the vial opening pointing upwards before (iii) rinsing them – either by hand or additionally with a dishwasher if you want to take out the human component completely.

Our second measure taken was maybe the most satisfying – replacing the old laboratory oven that was at least 30 years old and running at 350oC for 24h on 365 days a year. It was our molecular sieve oven that we used to activate our molecular sieves that are used for drying solvent. Not only was is poorly isolated and leaked heat, most importantly, it was not programmable. We therefore replaced it with a modern, energy efficient oven which run time can be adjusted. With the new oven, we were able to start a new procedure for activating our molecular sieves: baking the needed amount of sieves for 15h at 300oC. At all other times, the oven is off.

And while we don’t have the exact results for a full year, we can confidently say that we have cut down our energy consumption for this one oven from 4747 kWh/year to at least 500 kWh/year – that’s an impressive cut of approximately 90%!

Our third measure that we planned is not as easily measured but maybe makes much more of a difference in the long run, as it aims to change our mind-sets and additionally, the mind-set of scientists in richer laboratories and a generation of younger scientists that have become accustomed to having a vast availability of lab consumables and an environment where chemicals and necessary equipment is provided readily. In poorer laboratories and especially in the past, the utilised equipment is often simpler and almost always washed and reused. And despite of this all, science still works! As such, we wanted to investigate the possibility of switching back to more “outdated” but often more sustainable solutions in the lab, which is mostly a habitual change. In our lab, it is most noticeable for lab “consumables” – e.g. for pipetting and syringes. Currently, air cushion micro-pipettes are commonly used for a variety of solvents in the lab even though they work best in aqueous solutions and require disposable plastic tips (that even dissolve in some organic solvents!). Furthermore, organic solvents often damage the pipettes, making them inaccurate or even destroy them. Meanwhile, more “outdated” equipment such as glass pipettes or Hamiltonian syringes are typically left untouched in the presence of their plastic counterpart and are often discarded as an option due to the worry of cross-contamination or seemingly inferior accuracy. However, especially for organic solvents, these are not only excellent but very sustainable solutions.

So far, we have managed to create an infographic on the use of air-displacement pipettes and discussed them within the group. During creating the infographic and reading up on it, even we were quite surprised by just how unfitting air-displacement pipettes are for most organic solvents are!

I encourage you to have a look and check if you might want to consider switching to something else than air-displacement pipettes, too. There is also a PDF version of this in case you’d like to hang it up in your lab.

Happy pipetting and all the best from the sustainability group at the Physical Chemistry department!

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