lab tools

West Group chemistry lab

Chemistry often gets a bad rap when it comes to sustainability, but many lab users are hoping to turn that reputation around. Professor Frederick West's research lab team, also known as the West Group, advocates for doing lab work with sustainability in mind.

To that end, the lab is getting rid of water aspirators and installing alternative aspirators that use compressed air to function. This change could save the lab about 16,000 litres of water every single day!

Read on to learn more about this great lab.

A short interview with Thomas Scully, a researcher in the West lab

Why did you apply for the model green labs project?

I come from northern BC and I went to a small school with a very environmental focus. I was always very involved with the outdoors, the environment and nature. So when I saw this waste going on in B.C., I did some work there, and when I came here, I wanted to get involved. So when the model green labs project came out, I jumped on that right away and said, "Yeah, we’ll do that." And my boss, professor Frederick West, is already on board.

What are the top three sustainable features in this lab?

Our special project as a model green lab was to remove the water aspirators affixed to our taps right now. You turn the tap on full and the water runs through it, and then there’s a side arm on it so as the water runs through, it creates a negative vacuum. They use eight litres of water per minute and it goes straight down the drain — and we have 13 of them which operate four to six hours a day. So we want to get these other aspirators that work on the same principle but run on compressed air rather than water. We've found a series of electric pumps that can fit inside the lab, so we’ll get those soon and that will cover all our vacuum needs and use zero water.

Systems to reduce solvent and water waste are big ones. Department-wide we’re trying to recycle acetone, so we’re also going to be the test lab for the acetone recycler when it goes into research labs. It's running right now in undergrad labs.

We’re doing things more electronically. Most of our standard operating procedures are now online. We have a shared Google drive and a Facebook page for sharing information and documents.

Do you have advice for people who want to make their labs more sustainable?

It’s not as hard as you think it is. It’s incremental little changes, week by week, month by month. A lot of people I talk to think there’s this large barrier to entry, that we have to change all these lab practices, it’s going to slow down research, it’s going to be more expensive — but in most cases you can do the most good with just little changes here and there. And if you have a really good idea, there is the Sustainability Enhancement Fund, so there is money out there.

Training new people is the easiest way in most labs. Because your students are here for a set shelf life. We’re only in for four to six years in most cases. But if you can train up a new generation, then it becomes the way things are done. It might not be overnight, but culture shifts are possible.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Why Green Labs? 

Research activities are resource intensive compared to the needs of traditional classrooms. At the University of Alberta, buildings with labs currently use 43 per cent more energy than others. Some of this impact can be mitigated by greening the university's labs.

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