Daniel Kramer, College '15, and Alok Tayi, postdoctoral fellow in the George Whitesides Lab, Faculty for Arts and Sciences, were awarded a Student Sustainability Grant from the Office for Sustainability for the 2014-2015 academic year for their project entitled "Greening laboratories using Wi-Fi connected tools." Kramer and Tayi will document their experience and findings in a series of four blog posts that will cover: the conception of their idea, their initial prototyping and design challenges, testing in labs and lessons learned, and finally, an electricity audit and a report on savings. 

Our journey began with a painpoint that every scientist experiences: having to come into the laboratory, late at night, just to turn something off. I, myself, was forced to come into the lab just to turn off a hot-plate that was applying heat to a chemistry experiment. I asked myself, in this modern era, shouldn't there be a better, more convenient way to turn this thing off?

There exists numerous examples in consumer electronics of low-cost technology, enabled by wireless connectivity, that empowers people to perform simple functions from their smartphone or PC. Turn a light off, change the temperature of the room, check the status of their refrigerator—all from the palm of your hand. These very same, incredibly useful capabilities seem to be absent in the laboratory.

With a vision of a “connected laboratory” in mind, Danny and I are setting out to build tools that enable researchers to perform simple, but important functions, with ease all via the web. Our first goals: A web-based switch to turn things on/off and a web-based temperature monitor. Before building anything, however, my colleague and I sought out feedback from important folks at Harvard: Mat Lalonde in Harvard's Chemisty and Chemical Biology's safety office, and Quentin Gilly, Senior Coordinator for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Green Labs Program, in Harvard’s Office for Sustainability. Both Mat and Quentin were incredibly helpful—they provided direction and feedback on what types of tools would be most helpful for labs and occupants.

One application proposed, that we did not anticipate, is how sustainability could be enhanced in the laboratory using our WiFi-connected switch. Interestingly, numerous lab-based tools are unnecessarily left on overnight and consume electricity when not in use. Our switch could be employed to turn on and off these tools, conserving electricity in the lab.

Given that we have a tactical problem to solve and a tangible solution to develop, the Student Sustainability Grant Program is a terrific resource to help realize our solution. After consulting with Quentin and Brandon Geller (also of the Office for Sustainability), we constructed a proposal that would enable us to develop WiFi-enabled switches and thermocouples to monitor and control a variety of lab tools. Furthermore, the Harvard innovation lab (i-Lab) was incredibly generous and provided us workspace and access to their prototyping shop for the duration of the Fall 2014 semester. 

As we began to design the hardware and software, we also enlisted the help of collaborators from MIT’s Electrical Engineering & Computer Science department. Together, we are developing the WiFi-connected hardware and cloud-based software that will serve as the ‘control center’ for our devices. Stay tuned for our more on our experience, progress, and results. 

Check out their project abstract:

Labs are one of the most energy-intensive spaces on Harvard’s campus. Important work developing new medicines to treat diseases, synthesizing safer chemicals, and producing greener plastics, are just a few of the exciting ways these spaces are used. The tools used in these labs can consume tremendous amounts of electricity, which we propose to address. By building Wi-Fi-connected scientific tools that combine functional hardware with web-based software. Internet-of-Things platform allows scientists to remotely monitor and control their experiments and tools: this capability accelerates scientific research, reduces energy usage, and makes labs safer.  By combining Wi-Fi-connected tools and a cloud-based data analytics platform, scientists can monitor and control their experiments from anywhere, manage and analyze data quickly, and reach ‘Eureka!’ faster.