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A hot competition in cold storage

Cold storage represents significant costs and environmental impacts. Each year, the International Laboratory Freezer Challenge inspires labs around the world to do better.Credit: Ted Horowitz/ Getty Images

For researchers in the life sciences, few tools are more indispensable than the humble freezer. Yet how many scientists devote time and effort to improving the efficacy and environmental impact of their cold storage? Those who do win in more ways than one.

The International Laboratory Freezer Challenge encourages scientists to examine and improve their cold storage practices to aim for greater energy efficiency, sample integrity and sample access. The annual competition is open to any laboratory or research institution worldwide, and offers the chance to compete against other labs and organizations in the same sector — academic, government, clinical, and biotech/biopharma.

This year’s entrants came from from 218 labs across 88 organizations in Austria, Australia, Canada, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Cumulatively they saved 3.2 million kilowatt hours, a competition best, and 30% more than in 2019. That amount could power about 290 U.S. houses. The participants also reduced the carbon dioxide output from cold storage by 2,260 metric tons, which is equivalent to removing 360 passenger vehicles from the road for a year. A look at this year’s winners shows how labs can mobilize to make a difference.

Stone-cold successes

Among the 2020 winners, one determinant of success was a pre-existing culture of efficiency. At AstraZeneca, winner of an organizational award, risk management lead Pernilla Sörme says she “educated lab employees on the energy consumption of cold storage, ensuring broad engagement and healthy competition between labs.”

She backed that up with data. “Scientists in Alderley Park [one of AstraZeneca’s R&D centres] had done a study to determine the energy savings of increasing the temperature of ultra-low temperature freezers from –80 to –70. Sharing this data gave scientists confidence that the changes they were making would have a real-world impact.”

At the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, another 2020 organizational winner, lab manager, Edith Valeri, points to teamwork and shared mission as a source of success, namely the commitment of Principal Investigators, lab members and staff. David Sabatini, a professor of biology at the institute says, “The biological research we do is costly in terms of energy and resource use. We are committed to doing all we can to lower our environmental footprint.”

Similar dedication to sustainability led the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to claim the Winning Streak Award, for achieving the top academic organization award for the third year running. It also helped the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), the 2020 government organization winner, engage participants from across its institutes.

“The NIH promoted the Freezer Challenge through the NIH Green Labs Program and through sustainability teams, such as the Green Team Leads Council and the Sustainable Lab Practices Working Group,” says Jaroslav Sebek, who serves as the NIH’s Green House Gas program manager. “By advocating to these dedicated groups, we were able to recruit sustainability focused lab managers and researchers to participate.”

Individual labs also made significant contributions to the 2020 challenge. For Emma Foose, of the Learning and Research Laboratory at the University of Bristol, in the UK, winning an award for an individual lab was a multi-year process. In 2019, the lab defrosted and did preventative maintenance on all of its cold storage. This year, Foose says, “we could focus on key tasks. One of these was further reducing the number of ultra-low temperature freezers we had at –80 to –70 [degrees Celsius] instead.” By doing that, this lab saved eight metric tons of carbon dioxide and nearly $7,000 in annual energy expenses. The other winners in the individual lab category, the Janssen Biotherapeutics (JBIO) Lab and the Laboratory of Cell Biology at the National Cancer Institute, showed similarly impressive gains.

2020 Freezer Challenge winners and participants. Credit: My Green Lab

Eye to the future

Although the 2020 International Laboratory Freezer Challenge saved more energy than ever, My Green Lab CEO James Connelly sees more opportunities ahead. To encourage more labs to explore options in efficiency, Connelly and his colleagues created the My Green Lab Ambassador Program, which provides free, online information about making a lab more sustainable. In addition to that program, Connelly hopes that even more research institutions and countries will get involved in the 2021 International Laboratory Freezer Challenge. “The potential is vast,” he says, “and we’re just touching a tiny bit of the market.”

The 2021 Freezer Challenge will launch on January 1st. Check for details.


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