UCSF Sustainability Stories

Sophia Labeko | August 31, 2021

No Catch: Your Lab Can Save Money and Reduce CO2 Emissions

Did you know that research labs operate some of the most energy-intensive equipment at UC San Francisco? “Ultra-low temperature freezers are the worst because each unit consumes as much energy as an average home in order to maintain temperatures of -80C,” explains Dean Shehu, Research Commodities Manager, UCSF Supply Chain Management. Shehu and partners recently ran a successful pilot program that allowed labs to replace their energy-inefficient Ultra-Low Temperature (ULT) freezers with Energy Star®, efficient, ULT freezers at no cost. On average these new freezers require just one-third the energy of the older models.

Jason Sello portraitJason Sello(right), PhD, Professor of Pharmaceutical Chemistry at UCSF School of Pharmacy, at the time of the pilot was transitioning to his appointment at UCSF and outfitting his new lab with equipment, including a ULT freezer. The freezer that was generously provided by a colleague was nearing end of its life, so “the opportunity to replace it with a new energy efficient freezer was perfectly timed for me, for UCSF, and for the planet,” he says. In addition to using less energy, the new freezers cost less to maintain and are more reliable, which is not something to be overlooked when it comes to storing expensive reagents and priceless research samples.

Sello’s lab focuses on the design, discovery, synthesis, and characterization of small molecules that have therapeutic potential for infectious diseases and neurological disorders. In the course of their work, the lab generates hundreds of molecules and biological samples that must be stored such that they can be studied continuously over many years. “We hope that some of the molecules that we have made and study could be transformative new medicines,” explains Sello.

UCSF Leading the Way

According to Shehu, other institutions incentivize adoption of Energy Star® ULT freezers through vouchers that reduce the cost to labs. “UCSF does this also, but we are the only institution, that I’m aware of, that is replacing the units at no cost to the labs,” he notes. Our approach is scientific and based on a model that accurately predicts energy use by looking at the storage volume and age of each unit. That same model shows that full-cost replacements still provide a significant return on investment. “UCSF is also the only institution implementing this program at this scale. In fact, other UC campuses and a few universities around the US are waiting on our results,” says Shehu.

What Now?

The pilot will come to an end, as soon as the team replaces the final two freezers in the participating labs. Thereafter, the project team will review the results and plan for a campus-wide scale up. In addition to the internal process, Shehu will write a paper to submit to a scientific journal about their learnings, including the predictive model and another model of the long-term energy and cost savings.

As of now, the pilot data supports the financial and the environmental benefits of transitioning all 1,200 ULT freezers at UCSF to Energy Star® models. To put those benefits into perspective, the 1,200 ULT non-energy-efficient freezers we currently have, use the same amount of energy as the Health Sciences West and East towers. Transitioning to Energy Star® models would reduce our carbon emissions by 8,400 metric tons and save approximately $2 million in energy costs, annually.

Sello is confident that the UCSF research community will embrace the program. “One of the great things about USCF is having progressive and community-minded colleagues! I don’t think any of them need to be convinced to make changes that will be better for UCSF and the environment. I actually believe that the freezer replacement program will be over-subscribed.”

Related story: Freezers for a Sustainable Future