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Alasdair Taylor
Alasdair Taylor

The University of Nottingham is building an iconic carbon neutral research laboratory that will meet the highest standards of sustainability. It will be a game-changer in how chemistry research is done and how a state-of-the-art scientific facility is built and used.

Across Europe, we’ve come to realise our buildings need to be more energy efficient and sustainable they are responsible for 40% of our total energy use and 36% of our carbon dioxide emissions.

In a house or an office, we save energy by installing better insulation, switching to renewable electricity, replacing light bulbs with LEDs and so on. I see the drive towards sustainable homes every day on my street, where half the houses have solar panels on their roofs and I’m sure I’m not alone in being asked to take part “energy efficiency” campaigns at work.

Chemistry it’s all about energy

GSK_2At the University of Nottingham, we are going a step further and building a new, sustainable chemistry research facility – the Carbon Neutral Laboratory (CNL). Over 25 years, the CNL will become carbon neutral and its construction and operation will meet the highest internationally recognised sustainable standards.

Why do this? Well, chemistry is an energy-intensive activity. We have to heat chemicals to make them react and use large volumes of water and cryogenic (very cold!) liquids to stop the same chemicals overheating. High tech, and power hungry, equipment is then used to analyse the chemicals we make.

Perhaps the biggest energy consumer in a chemistry lab is the humble fumehood, whose purpose is to stop toxic fumes escaping into the open laboratory or the environment and causing harm. Like air conditioning units, fumehoods work by pumping large volumes of air in and out of the building, and require a lot of energy. In California, fumehoods are estimated to need 1GW of energy every year (equivalent to 750 000 homes); which is about the same amount of energy the state produces through solar power.

How do you make a laboratory sustainable?

As the photos show, the CNL has an iconic design, but not just for purely aesthetic reasons. The building’s aspect maximises electricity generation from its roof-mounted solar panels and provides natural light to the laboratories. Wherever possible, sustainable construction materials will be used - 90% of the building will be timber.   Heat and power will come from a combined unit burning waste fish oil, with the excess being available for three neighbouring buildings. There will even be an electric vehicle power point.

GSK_1What about those problematic fumehoods?

The CNL will have state-of-the art fumehoods installed, which require the lowest air flow possible while retaining industry standard levels of safety.  Again, the unique roof shape with its four “horns” comes into play, as it will funnel air across the building, assisting the extraction of air from the labs.  All these features will dramatically reduce energy consumption, helping make the building carbon neutral across its 25 year lifetime.

Waste will be reduced by recycling and reusing as much as possible. Water used to cool reactions and equipment in the labs will be recirculated, rather than go straight down the sink. Helium, essential for important analytical equipment but whose short supply is becoming a worry, will also be collected and re-used.

Sustainable Chemists, not just Sustainable Chemistry

For those scientists based in the new building, working in a sustainable laboratory will need a change in attitude and culture. Chemists are often quite traditional in how they work. Many of the common techniques we use were developed over 100 years ago, when sustainability and energy use weren’t major concerns, and haven’t changed much since. Sticking to the tried and tested experiments of old won’t be possible. Researchers will have to carefully design their experiments by considering how much energy they consume, what chemicals and solvents they choose and whether or not to even use a fumehood.

The CNL will be home to cutting edge research, from hydrogen fuel cells to new catalysts and greener chemical reactions.  Not only will the building be a beacon within the industry, it will produce new science and technologies that will make all our futures more sustainable.  Finally, a new generation of world-leading scientists will have sustainability embedded into their thought processes, helping them make real differences in their future careers.

The CNL is being funded by pharmaceutical giant, GlaxoSmithKline, who share Nottingham’s passion for green and sustainable chemistry, a grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and through a charitable donation by the Wolfson Trust. The building is being built in partnership with Morgan Sindall and GLEEDS at the University of Nottingham’s Innovation Park and is due for completion in April 2015. You can watch the building works live on webcam here and here.