University research labs deliver crucial innovations that create healthier, better lives for all of us, but they have a dirty little secret—they can consume massive amounts of energy, contributing to climate change.

That chemical fume hood that removes unsafe air? It can use as much energy as three average American homes. Toss in a few lab freezers holding a constant -80 degrees Celsius, and energy consumption adds up quickly.

A new collaborative effort between the Office of Sustainability and the Department of Engineering & Energy is finding ways to reap the benefits of science while reducing the environmental impacts. Called the Green Labs Program, it’s part of UMD’s Climate Action Plan to achieve carbon neutrality on campus, and serves as a resource for labs to identify ways to make research more sustainable.

An early participant in the program, cell biology and molecular genetics Professor Norma Andrews, found she was able to eliminate more than 55,000 pounds of annual carbon dioxide emissions by instituting some relatively simple changes.

It started with a lab walk-through and presentation to staff by Emery Wolf, UMD Green Labs associate, who talked about energy-saving tactics for the Andrews Lab—which focuses on the cell biology of intracellular protozoan parasites and mechanisms of plasma membrane repair—without impeding research.

“We learned a lot from Emery's visit and immediately implemented his suggestions by ‘retiring’ one old -80°C freezer, defrosting refrigerators, adding timers to water baths, and keeping fume hoods closed when not in use,” Andrews said.

The hoods, which put an extra load on a building’s HVAC systems when left open, are by far the No. 1 culprit, Wolf said—something most researchers aren’t aware of. They’re often left open even when not needed, flushing heated or air-conditioned air out of the building.

 “When ventilation can be reduced, energy is saved, and less carbon is released to the atmosphere,” Wolf said.
Charmaine Yuan ‘20, a biological sciences and psychology double major and a sustainability minor, took the sustainability lead for the lab.

"I was so excited when I was invited to serve as a Green Labs change agent and work as a liaison between the Andrews Lab and the Office of Sustainability,” Yuan said.

While focused on research goals, it’s easy to leave equipment on and consuming energy, Wolf said.

 “There is a real tragedy of the commons that can happen in labs,” he said.