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My Green Lab - Fume Hood

The Penn State Sustainable Lab Program helps research labs reduce their energy use through a United Nations-endorsed certification program that trains researchers to incorporate simple changes, like lowering the sash of a fume hood — which uses significant energy — when inactive, as demonstrated in this photo. Credit: Michelle Bixby / Penn State. All Rights Reserved.

Fifteen Penn State research labs have earned My Green Lab certifications at one of the three highest levels available: gold, platinum or green. The certification is recognized by the United Nations as a key measure toward the goal of a zero-carbon future. The Penn State Sustainable Labs Program, launched in 2022, piloted the international certification program at the University, and will welcome 25 new research labs from across the commonwealth to participate in the coming academic year. Applications are due on Aug. 10.

The Sustainable Labs Program is hosted by the Sustainability Institute, in partnership with multiple colleges, the Center for Nanoscale Science and the National Science Foundation-funded Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers.

“I am surprised how simply taking the self-assessment started conversations and opened some group members' eyes to the impact of everything they do and how many ways they can effect change,” said Stephen Paolini, a graduate student in the recently certified laboratory of Cui-Zu Chang, Henry W. Kneer Early Career Professor and associate professor of physics in the Eberly College of Science.

In support of the Penn State Carbon Emissions Reduction Task Force’s goal to become a 100% carbon neutral University by 2035, the University piloted the My Green Lab certification process for impact and suitability as the core element of the Sustainable Labs Program at Penn State, according to Kristin Dreyer, co-leader on the project and program director for education and outreach for the Center for Nanoscale Science.

“In just five months, the compiled assessment scores of all labs demonstrated a 54 percent improvement in knowledge of sustainability and the implementation of improved lab practices,” said Lydia Vandenbergh, project co-leader and associate director for employee engagement and education at Penn State’s Sustainability Institute. “As a result, the Sustainable Labs Program leadership team is encouraging new research labs to join the next cohort.”

Nationwide, laboratories are one of the most energy and resource-intensive sectors, consuming significant energy per square foot, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. One study, published in Nature, estimated that research produces 5.5 million metric tons of plastics annually. To address these concerns, the nonprofit group My Green Lab developed a host of programs to foster a culture of sustainability in science to leverage efficiencies and savings that can be used towards other priorities, while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions. 

More than half of My Green Lab’s clientele is industry — including companies that hire Penn State alumni. Penn State has joined a handful of higher education institutions testing the application of their process in the academic setting. In its first year, more than 200 Penn State participants across the 25 labs took steps towards safer practices, reduced chemical and commodity usage, and more efficient energy expenditures.

Lab changes included:  

  • Improving freezer management by participating in the international Freezer Challenge, which provides pathways for researchers to reduce energy costs by $2,000 per freezer 
  • Replacing nitrile gloves with biodegradable models 
  • Using equipment more efficiently via timer installation and cross-lab sharing 
  • Replacing chemicals with less hazardous options and disposing of chemicals prior to expirations dates 
  • Closing fume hood sashes when inactive 
  • Avoiding single-use items by finding alternative products or methods 

Five of these labs’ certification efforts were supported by a Sustainable Lab Ambassador (SLA), a paid undergraduate student trained by Sustainability Institute staff in sustainable concepts and incorporating safety, effective communications strategies, project management approaches and behavior change motivators. Funded through a grant from the Penn State College of Engineering’s Leonhard Center for Enhancement of Engineering Education, this formal scholarship initiative offers SLAs an applied, hands-on understanding of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

“Being an SLA provided me with the technical background to approach issues related to sustainability with the understanding of creating flexible and innovative solutions to long-term obstacles,” said Caden Vitti, a Schreyer Scholar majoring in energy engineering.

For the coming year, the SLA cohort has expanded to 15 students, each of which will be matched with a lab in the coming weeks.

More is available on the Sustainable Labs Program website. Interested participants may also contact the leadership team at sustainablelabs@psu.edu.