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Energy Reduction for Energy Research

Scientists have unearthed efficiencies in technologies and processes for sectors as diverse as agriculture and telecommunications, saving untold gigawatts and dollars in the process. However, does a self-assessment reveal the same efficiency gains from the researchers themselves? Where are the efficiencies waiting to be gained from the laboratories, computer facilities, and clean environments where research occurs? Evan Mills recently considered this question in this cover article "Sustainable Scientists," in Environmental Science & Technology Viewpoint [Environ. Sci. Technol., 2009, 43 (4), pp 979-985]. Mills is a scientist in the Environmental Energy Technologies Division of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Through a synthesis of more than a decade of work by Berkeley Lab's "high-tech" facilities program, Mills found that, in the United States, some $10 billion of research money flows not into the research itself, but into the energy required to conduct it. Therefore, every efficiency that can be gained in the laboratory redirects existing funding to more staff, better facilities and equipment, and the myriad other daily wish list items of the researcher. These facilities also emit greenhouse-gas emissions equivalent to that of 15 million cars.

Molecular Foundry building Graph comparing the greenhouse gas emissions of typical building vs. the Molecular Foundry at LBNL.

This nanotechnology research facility at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL achieved a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold Rating, thanks to extensive green and energy-efficient features and renewable power purchases. Estimated carbon-dioxide emissions are 85% less than standard practice (which includes aggressive California building codes), vastly more than national average reductions called for by the Kyoto Protocol. ($/m2-y)

Mills asserts that remarkable savings can be achieved in the research setting. "By following commercially proven best practices in facility design and operation, scientists—and the sponsors of science—can efficaciously halve these costs and so do their part to put society on a low-carbon diet."

Much of this savings can be built into the system when designing facilities, by focusing on future electrical, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning needs, as well as efficient research equipment and plug loads. For example, Berkeley Lab's Molecular Foundry, a new state-of-the-art nanotechnology research lab, achieved substantial savings (and a LEED Gold rating) over a comparable standard-practice facility type, with no net increase in construction costs. Systems efficiencies can be greatly enhanced by involving owners, occupants, and service providers when designing the building, and by establishing a focused operations and maintenance program from the outset.

However, even if a facility is not state of the art, much can be done to reduce energy costs. Here are some suggestions for laboratories, computing facilities, and clean environments:

  • Laboratories. Benchmarking from laboratories shows an eight-fold variation in energy intensity, so energy-saving opportunities obviously abound. Berkeley Lab's high-tech team has identified some prime strategies to achieving those savings: "specifying premium-efficiency fume hoods and laboratory equipment, avoiding overventilation, minimizing pressure drop in the ventilation system, energy recovery, minimizing simultaneous heating and cooling, and properly sizing space-conditioning equipment to match actual loads."
  • Computing. Power and cooling costs for computing facilities routinely eclipse the cost of the equipment, and those costs are expected to rise precipitously in the future. Researchers can reduce energy demand and rein in costs by using improved IT equipment, uninterruptible power supplies, and more efficient cooling strategies. Other strategies include improving computational efficiency and consolidating and virtualizing underutilized machines. Users also benefit from changing fundamental processes: shifting to a direct-current infrastructure in one Berkeley Lab demonstration project yielded a 10% facility-wide savings compared to the best-available AC configuration, and a more than 25% savings compared to conventional practice.
  • Clean Environments. Like laboratories, an analysis of clean environments revealed an eight-fold variation in floor-area-normalized ventilation costs. The most impressive savings will come from premium-efficiency air-movement equipment and design, more efficient tools, and process changes. For example, mini-environments can isolate the work area to a smaller, more easily controlled space, allowing for a more relaxed particle count in the surrounding space. Real-time particle counting can enable researchers to modulate ventilation speeds to meet current needs and reduce energy demand.

Practical information on how to reduce energy use in research spaces is available on the web, from the following organizations:

— Mark Wilson

For more information, contact:

  • Evan Mills
  • (510) 486-6784

To read the article, "Sustainable Scientists" in Environmental Science & Technology, go to ACS Publications.

This work was sponsored by the Director, Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences, U.S. Department of Energy; U.S. EPA; California Energy Commission, Public Interest Energy Research; Pacific Gas and Electric Company; and New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

Mark Wilson is a freelance science writer and editor and Assistant Editor of the EETD News.

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