Think of a research laboratory and pristine bare rooms lit by fluorescent lights come to mind. What doesn’t is that a lab can consume up to 100 times as much as energy as a similar sized office.
Behind this mind-boggling figure are power guzzling laboratory equipment and, more critically, the need for high-end ventilation systems.
Due to safety requirements, a laboratory needs up to six or 12 air changes per hour—the number of times the air in a room is renewed by exchanging it with outside air—compared to the single air change per hour in an office, according to the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories (I2SL), a global body focusing on improving safety and sustainability in laboratories.
Intuitively, this makes sense; in a confined area, working with materials and setups that can be volatile, toxic, highly sensitive to the environment, or any combination of the three, good ventilation is key to protect the health of researchers working there. Energy-intensive mechanical ventilation, which uses ducts and fans to circulate fresh air into the laboratory, is necessary.
But that huge power sink, according to I2SL executive vice president Gordon Sharp, is also the low-hanging fruit when it comes to making laboratories more energy efficient.
“It all comes down to air flow—that’s the core driver for energy use in laboratories,” he said, speaking in Singapore for the Siemens Labs Innovation Day in August. In contrast, many common solutions to reduce a building’s emissions output, such as designing for natural ventilation and lighting, raising air conditioning temperatures, or adding greenery, simply do not work with safety regulations.
“Laboratories require a very clean and tightly controlled environment,” said Sharp, who is also the chairman of specialist ventilation firm Aircuity. “The top concerns are safety, security, and regulatory compliance—natural ventilation is not adequate, and you can’t have plants in that environment either.”
While speakers at the event spoke about solutions including heat recycling and chilled beams to bring down the energy footprint of laboratories, the area of ventilation was where they said the quickest gains could be made for sustainability.