Bringing sustainability to the lab

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The Chemical Engineering Teaching Labs were the first teaching labs to be recognised with a Silver Sustainability Award. Research Laboratory Technician at the School of Engineering, Gordon Paterson, tells us about his role, why he cares about sustainability, and how he is making a positive difference in his place of work.

Gordon’s job involves ensuring that the lab experiments are functional for the students and updating them to ensure positive learning for the students. It’s this interaction between the students, and the academics he works with that Gordon says he enjoys most about his work. It’s why he is always keeping an eye out for ways to improve the impact and sustainability of this work.

Despite this, Gordon wasn’t expecting the labs and his team, to be the first in the University to be celebrated with a Silver Sustainability Award: “The Chemical Engineering Teaching Labs were the first teaching labs to get a Silver Sustainability Award – this was a surprise to us. We did it because it was the right thing to do and we wanted to see if we could make improvements, but it was a boost to find out we were blazing the trail for others to follow.

L-R: Dr Rupert J Myers, Gordon Paterson and Dr Enzo Mangano at the 2019 Sustainability Awards

“Louise Hogg in the wet labs told me about the awards scheme. She introduced me to the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability team. I enjoy doing it. I grew up in a generation where we could fix things so I don’t like waste!”

Saving water

It was this aversion to waste that helped Gordon and his team work to use their technical knowledge and ingenuity to save more water. They managed to find a solution that saved 90 per cent contaminated waste in a liquid to liquid extraction experiment.

“Previously, the team used to drain the experiment – a mixture of kerosene and water – and put it in a waste disposal container,” explains Gordon. “Like most good scientific discoveries, I noticed by chance one day that it had separated into kerosene and water while it had been sitting on the bench, and that the University was about to pay a lot to throw out more water than kerosene. So, Sean and I set up a separation process to remove the small amount of kerosene from the water, allowing us to clean up the kerosene and separately dispose of the water appropriately.

Sean filtering the kerosene.

“Before the changes, at the end of the year we were disposing of around 25 litres of waste from this experiment; we now only need to dispose of about 2.5 litres of contaminated waste.”

The team has also created better water cooling systems. Gordon explains: “We had an experiment which, because of the design of the filter element in it, needed to be kept wet.

“To keep the contents of the experiment wet, water was circulated with a pump, which itself was cooled with tap water, and was running constantly for both semesters. I saw the water flowing down the drain and thought that this shouldn’t be happening day and night for every week of the academic year. I spoke to my academic colleague and we bought a closed-loop chiller that recirculates a small amount of water to keep the pump cool. We no longer use tap water for cooling and we have saved a lot of water.

“Another experiment had a similar problem, but it was just operating for the hours of the teaching experiment, so was using less water,” Gordon adds. “Some people may forget it takes money to make potable water. Because it’s a teaching lab, we can point this out to the students, and motivate them to take more actions themselves by giving a positive example.”

Collective responsibility

Sustainability is important to Gordon: “I hope the world will still be here for my grandchildren to enjoy it the way I have enjoyed it. I feel we have a responsibility to make sure we don’t mess it up completely.

“Engaging people and getting them to understand the value of making small changes can improve the University’s sustainability. It all adds up, if lots of people make small changes. If it’s just me doing it, it will take a lot longer.”

Gordon feels so strongly about this that, outside of his day job, he also volunteers as a path warden. He elaborates: “Path wardens are assigned a local path or paths and we carry out routine inspections to ensure that the paths are in a safe condition and fit for use. We report any larger issues to the local council but we deal with minor ones ourselves such as litter picking, and cutting back low branches that may hit walkers and cyclists.

“The council also arrange for the path wardens who are available to carry out some of the larger jobs reported as a group and they supply the tools and equipment and arrange for the waste to be removed and suitably disposed of.”

Looking to the future

Gordon is hopeful for the future and believes that a circular economy and renewable energy are key: “I am keen for there to be more investment in tidal electricity generation – it’s a huge resource and very predictable. Hydrogen for transport also presents opportunities. Every country has its own resources which allow them to do different things.

“I think we can make a difference by educating children that they don’t have to have the latest gadgets and that they should value them and use them until they can’t be fixed. It’ll take a lot of effort because of the strong marketing of the electronics industry. The existing system is designed to create a disposable society – people have become used to that. The Right to Repair law could generate a market in repairing white goods.”

Technicians make it happen

The Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability is a proud supporter of the University of Edinburgh as a signatory to the Technician Commitment, and recognises the strong links between our technician community and sustainability goals.

This post was originally posted on the Seed, the blog for the Social Responsibility and Sustainability team.

Images: Gareth Easton