Cutting the Carbon Footprint in UChicago Labs

August 12, 2019

Student-driven changes in laboratories at UChicago yield energy and cost savings

For the past two years, a group of University of Chicago student interns have been surveying lab buildings across campus. The interns tallied equipment such as freezers, fume hoods, centrifuges, shakers, helium compressors, and more. The goal? Cutting the University's carbon footprint.

"We've been trying to create preliminary calculations for how much energy each lab, floor, and building is consuming," said Briana Moore, an environmental science major in the College.

The internship grew out of a partnership between the Department of Geophysical Sciences, the Provost's Office, and Facilities Services. The program aimed to provide students with an opportunity to think about energy and sustainability by analyzing their own campus environment.

"It's the UChicago way to have students address real questions, which are rigorous and quantitative," said Elisabeth Moyer, Associate Professor in the Department of Geophysical Sciences. Moyer also partnered with the Provost's Office to run a series of hackathons. "We wanted to dive into data to see where real impact can be." 

This data collection and analysis is part of a larger University initiative to limit its contribution to global warming and climate change. "The University has a goal to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by the year 2025," said Brian Bozell, the Energy and Utilities Manager with Facilities Services. 

Laboratory buildings, which consume roughly ten times as much energy as non-lab buildings, have been a priority. Moore and her fellow interns researched what other universities did to decrease energy intensity in labs. "We compiled recommendations for what programs might be useful here," said Moore.

At their recommendation, the Physical Sciences Division (PSD) implemented a Shut the Sash program, modeled after Harvard's program by the same name, in Searle Chemistry Laboratory.

technician testing fume hood
Technician testing fume hood air flow

Fume hoods are built to cycle air out of the building for the safety of those working labs, but if their sashes are left open when the hoods are not in use, there is a huge energy cost.

Facilities Services generated reports on which fume hoods were left open for long stretches of time. Simply sharing these reports with principal investigators and posting them in physical spaces yielded 6.5% decrease in energy consumption.

"Changing how researchers use fume hoods was low hanging fruit," said Jim Passolano, PSD Director of Design and Construction, who manages the design, renovation, and construction of research facilities for the Division. "By putting data together and publicizing it, we changed behavior and the culture of the labs."

Facilities Services also recommended several low-cost projects, including reducing the fume hood velocity to the new industry standard, resetting fume hood timers so they close automatically after an extended period of time, and setting back the temperatures at night. The projects will cost around $174,000 but save $136,000 annually and result in a total annual energy reduction of around 10,000 MMBTU.

The Physical Sciences Division plans to take similar energy saving measures in the Gordan Center for Integrative Science and the William Eckhardt Research Center. Meanwhile, the Facilities Services student interns have completed their assessments in the Biological Sciences Division and the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and are now monitoring data from the implementation of their programs.

"This is an example of students, faculty, senior leaders, and Facilities, all working together to address energy consumption," said Passolano.

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