Essay

Proteins for a green energy future

‘We need giant steps, not small, if we are going to create the innovation in policies, political will, and technology needed to succeed with this existential problem’
Borden Lacy
By Borden Lacy
Nov. 20, 2022

My favorite part of being a scientist is the challenge of tackling hard problems. It is a career that encourages creativity and collaboration, and it is one where a large number of failures are to be expected and any small step forward can be a cause for celebration. When reading about the climate crisis, however, I feel overwhelmed.

Multiple reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have made clear that we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions 45% by 2030 and to net zero by 2050 if we want to preserve a livable planet. I feel overwhelmed, because we are running out of time, there is less room for failure and we need giant steps, not small, if we are going to create the innovation in policies, political will and technology needed to succeed with this existential problem. It is an all-hands-on deck type of problem, and it is clear we need the expertise of activists, artists, climate scientists, ecologists, economists, educators, engineers, policy makers, politicians, social scientists, writers and more. Lately, I have been wondering what I have to offer. Do we need protein scientists and structural biologists?

Honestly, I don’t know. I’d like to think I/we have some useful skills and ways to make positive contributions. One thing we could certainly set our sights on is to not contribute negatively. Laboratory science is obviously a key driver of medical and technical innovation, but it is resource intensive. Did you know that laboratories use five to 10 times more energy than an office space? Perhaps this isn’t surprising, we have a lot of energy intensive equipment: freezers, fume hoods, biosafety cabinets, and water baths. We need these items, of course, but it turns out there is a lot we can do to reduce our energy footprint.

In looking for information, I discovered websites like Green Your Lab and My Green Lab that have lots of ideas on sustainability.

For example, shutting the sash on the chemical or biological fume hood when not in use. An open sash is a portal of active air exchange between the building and the outside world and can cause a fume hood to use 3.5x the energy of a household. Keeping the sash closed, can cut that energy use in half.

Secondly, we can set our ultra-low temperature freezers at -70˚C instead of -80˚C. This reduces the energy consumption by 40%, reduces the workload on the compressors, and data are available to demonstrate no consequences in terms of storage integrity for a wide range of samples. Now that I think back on it, we used to have our freezers set at -65 ˚C in graduate school. Then they became -68˚C, and then we had the option of buying one at -80˚C. "Wow," I thought. "Sounds colder and better!" But, actually, there were no data to say that the -80˚C temperature was needed. Our proteins and cells are perfectly happy at -70˚C. And the DNA? It doesn’t even need to go into the ultralow temp freezer at all; it is stable at -20˚C. We could have a measurable impact on the carbon footprint of our buildings by reducing the number of freezers we occupy and the temperature setting of our ultralow temp freezers from -80˚C to -70˚C. And our freezers should last longer, especially if we take the extra steps of defrosting and cleaning the air filters regularly.

Next tip: Turn off — and ideally unplug — the lab equipment on nights and weekends. I was prepared to push back on this one. We need to be efficient. We can‘t be waiting for our water baths and heat blocks to warm up or our centrifuges to cool down each morning. My Green Lab had the answer though: outlet timers. Turns out you can buy an outlet timer for $10 to $15. You can have it turn on at 5 a.m. or the time of your choosing so that your equipment is ready and waiting for the early birds in your lab. You can have it turn off when the night owls leave. I splurged on the $15 timers that are digital and can be programmed differently depending on the day of the week. Most of my lab still doesn’t know that I installed them, which tells me that they are working just fine! According to Green Your Lab, if every lab in the USA would turn off one piece of equipment each night for a year, it would be the equivalent of offsetting the CO2 emissions associated with burning 50 million pounds of coal.

The Green Your Lab and My Green Lab websites have lots of information on green-friendly products and vendors, ways to recycle, and ways to participate in the circular economy of lab consumables. MyGreenLab has a free ambassador program where you watch four videos and get a certificate, and you can pay them to help you with an audit and get a Green Lab certification of your lab. I haven’t tried the audit yet, but I did become an ambassador. Moreover, I started a raffle in our Center for Structural Biology that people can enter by submitting their ambassador certificate. The prize is a gift card for a sustainable business or restaurant in Nashville. If one or more of these ambassadors goes back to their lab and implements some green lab practices, then it is another step forward.

What else can we do, though? A goal of net zero will mean more than just curbing the 10x excess energy stemming from our labs.

Travel is a big one, both in terms of how we get to work each day and in terms of how we get around the globe for meetings and conferences. This is a big topic, too big to explore in the space allotted here, but here are a few things I have found interesting. If you can get there in a day by car, even when traveling solo in a fuel-guzzling vehicle, it is likely going to have a lower carbon footprint than flying. If you have to fly, try to fly direct and try to choose airlines with newer fleets. Most airlines will now tell you the carbon footprint associated with your flight, and many will provide an option for purchasing carbon offset credits. The investments typically go toward reforestation efforts or something similar. It is important that these investments are vetted carefully, but this is an option that has allowed me to move past a feeling of paralysis and into a frame of mind where I am actively engaged in solutions. And it doesn’t cost much. I recently purchased a ticket to fly from Tennessee to California, and the cost to offset the associated 1,051 pounds of CO2 was $6.

Admittedly, most of these solutions are merely working toward reducing our contribution to the problem not addressing the problem itself. Here, I come back to the question: Is there a role for protein scientists in tackling climate change? I am in the early stages of investigating this question, but I am pretty sure the answer is yes. I hope ASBMB members will take the time to check out the articles in the November issue of ASBMB Today and will be thinking about how we can each contribute expertise to addressing this problem. We’ve got a lot of work to do!

This article was republished and adapted with permission. It originally appeared in The Protein Society’s newsletter. Read the original.

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Borden Lacy
Borden Lacy

Borden Lacy is a professor and director of the Vanderbilt Center for Structural Biology.

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