A typical life science laboratory uses more than three times as much electricity per square foot as an office building.  Much of the energy use responsible for a lab’s large environmental footprint comes from plug-load equipment including freezers, incubators, computers, and other technologies which are necessary to support laboratory research. To determine how much energy could potentially be saved if a laboratory adopted basic energy conservation practices, Quentin Gilly of Harvard Medical School’s Drosophila RNAi Screening Center conducted a case study comparing bench top equipment energy use before and after the adoption of intervention strategies in Marc Kirschner’s lab in the Department of Systems Biology.  Although the Kirschner Lab already practiced some energy-conscious behaviors, Quentin anticipated that they would discover some room for improvement.


For the study, Quentin partnered with the Kirschner Lab to assess bench top instruments using a Modlet energy monitoring device which sent data via Wi-Fi to a local computer in 15 minute intervals over the duration of the pre-intervention study. After this data was exported and analyzed, Quentin was able to approximate the baseline energy consumption for these instruments under typical use.

The baselines spanned from an average of 96 watts per day for the least energy-intensive Drummond Pipette Charger, to an average of 9,678 watts per day for the largest energy hog: a Biorad Thermocycler. Although some equipment was only turned on when needed, including a water bath and a rocker, several of the instruments that ran on a regular basis appeared to be good candidates for potential energy reduction.

The study lasted for a total of three weeks, with the first two weeks devoted to collecting baseline data and the third week focusing on energy reduction potential after adopting various intervention strategies. One of these interventions involved putting up signs stating that the equipment was being monitored as part of an energy study.  Kirschner Lab manager Michael Gage jumped on board by asking lab members for thoughtful participation in the study, as well as checking all monitored equipment at the end of the work day to turn off anything that was left powered on.  


The preliminary results were quite promising—over the span of five days, the lab equipment showed significant energy reductions averaging 51.6%, with some equipment, such as the energy-intensive Biorad Thermocycler, reducing its energy consumption by as much as 70%. Quentin’s case study highlights how simple, energy-saving practices can help a laboratory significantly maximize its energy reduction potential. The challenge is effectively communicating and motivating all lab members to take part in the initiative.  As Quentin notes: “It is not until an institution can recruit everyone involved before the true potential of laboratory sustainability can be revealed.”

The case study data for the Kirschner Lab will help show lab members how simple social engineering techniques, like posting signs on lab equipment, can be used to reduce electricity consumption. Sharing his enthusiasm for Quentin’s work, Michael Gage believes that “being a responsible lab member should include an awareness of how to save electricity” and he looks forward to Quentin’s assistance with their next study: testing the Kirschner Lab’s freezer electricity usage after a de-icing.

“It is not until an institution can recruit everyone involved before the true potential of laboratory sustainability can be revealed.”

Championing Lab Sustainability

Quentin’s motivation for the Kirschner Lab case study, which was his master’s degree capstone project in the Harvard Extension School’s Sustainability and Environmental Management program, is rooted in a personal passion for sustainability. In 2010, he was recognized as “An Eco Champion Among Us” for working with Harvard’s custodial services to start a packaging re-use system that is still in place today (on the third floor bridge connector between NRB and HIM) and has saved an estimated 1000 packages from being sent to waste.  

Quentin has also been involved with the Longwood Green Labs committee since 2012 and is working to procure more energy efficient freezers and fume hoods on the HMS campus, to establish a “point-reward” system to incentivize sustainable lab practices, and to incorporate more emphasis on sustainability in annual lab safety training quizzes. 

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