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The demand for ultracold storage has soared—and with it, the need for sustainability best practices

Ultra-low temperature freezers, for use in research or clinical applications, can draw as much energy as a typical home.Credit: Panther Media GmbH / Alamy

The world of laboratory freezers tends to be about as stable as their ultra-low temperatures. The COVID-19 pandemic changed that. Since the development and subsequent approval of certain mRNA vaccines, global demand and use of ultra-low temperature (ULT) freezers has surged, by some accounts more than 500%.

A single ultra-low temperature freezer can consume as much energy as a typical home. Universities, hospitals, and biopharma organizations can operate hundreds of them, along with thousands of refrigerators and other freezers. The storage requirements for some vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 have further increased the number of units in operation. As the need for cold storage climbs, best practices in cold-storage management become that much more important. Operating all laboratory cold storage effectively is the purpose of the International Laboratory Freezer Challenge.

2021 was the fifth consecutive year of the Freezer Challenge, and coordinators from My Green Lab, in San Diego, CA, and the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories, in Arlington, VA, received competition submissions from 300 laboratories representing more than 100 different research organizations from 17 countries.

Participants in the competition earn points by implementing sustainable best practices — from defrosting freezers to barcoding samples — that improve energy efficiency, sample access, and sample integrity. The 2021 challenge added small, medium, and large individual lab awards, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign earned a Winning-Streak Award for consecutive years of top-level performance (See ‘Winners’).

Members of the Van Der Pol lab at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, named the top academic organization in the 2021 Freezer Challenge.Credit: My Green Lab

Modest changes add up

The benefits of improved cold storage practices multiply with the number of participants. Green Labs coordinator, Nicholas Ciancio, and intern, Emily Colpack, represent the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which won the top academic organization award in 2021. As Ciancio explains, they recruited labs into the competition by offering a free freezer cleaning service. To get that free cleaning, though, a lab had to sign up for the Freezer Challenge. An incredible 34 labs joined in.

Freezer Challenge participants from the Research Materials Management Lab in Discovery Technologies at Amgen, which won the biotech/biopharma small lab category.Credit: My Green Lab

At Amgen, the Research Materials Management Lab in Discovery Technologies won the biotech/biopharma, small-lab category. According to the senior manager of research operations, Amanda Lembke, the team’s focus combined, she says, “three main areas: defrosting freezers regularly, encouraging the use of standardized consumables to take advantage of condensed storage, and eliminating unnecessary material.” She adds that “seeing how relatively simple changes and actions can add up to real cost and energy savings definitely sparked a lot of interest.”

Department leads at the Children's Hospital of Westmead, a 2021 Winner.Credit: My Green Lab

The benefits of consolidation

Two winners focused on reassessing their cold storage needs. For example, Denise Cunliffe, senior hospital scientist in the endocrinology lab at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead in Australia, says, “We found that we could discard sufficient samples over several freezers to allow us to consolidate the remainder and have one freezer left empty, and the decision was made to not replace that freezer.”

One winner went even farther. At the Health Microbiology Laboratory at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, scientists carefully considered their cold storage needs and instead tried room temperature sample storage for some materials—a bold move.

In total, participants in the 2021 Freezer Challenge saved more than 4 million kilowatt-hours over the course of a year — enough energy to power more than 400 average U.S. homes. As Cunliffe says, “This Freezer Challenge has been a wake-up call for us to review our practices and be more proactive in making changes for a more sustainable future.” She adds, “It has been a win for our laboratory, a win for our hospital, and a win for the environment.” Congratulations to all the winners of the 2021 competition.

To learn more about the International Laboratory Freezer Challenge—and to register to participate in next year’s competition starting January 1, 2022—visit The Freezer Challenge is made possible by generous corporate sponsors.


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