Innovation & Enterprise


UCL leads drive to make UK science and research more sustainable

14 December 2020

A team at UCL has devised a new framework to improve efficiency and sustainability in research laboratories across the UK.

A lab technician standing in her lab

Sustainable UCL developed the Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework (LEAF), which has been trialled at 23 institutions. 

LEAF is being rolled out as an online platform for any lab or institution that wants to improve the sustainability of their laboratories. The creation and roll-out of the tool was supported by UCL Innovation & Enterprise.

Towards a more sustainable research base 

The UK has a world-leading science and research base, but world-leading research carries a significant footprint in terms of energy use and waste through consumables. For example, the ultra-low-temperature freezers used in many labs consume as much power as a typical household. Those who work in labs can potentially have as much as 100 times greater impact on carbon emissions through their actions at work than in their homes. 

Martin Farley, Sustainable Labs Adviser in UCL Estates and co-architect of LEAF, comments: “Lab sustainability has been on the agenda for some time and carbon targets are frequently set out. But what’s currently missing are the operational standards and guidance on how to actually get there. We use the same health and safety standard everywhere, so it makes sense to use a sustainability standard as well. That’s the thinking behind LEAF, and to make that process as user-friendly as possible.” 

A successful pilot scheme  

During the pilot of LEAF, which ran from 2018 to 2020, over 225 lab groups took part from 23 research institutions across England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Participating institutions included the Universities of Cambridge, Glasgow and Swansea, as well as Imperial College London, Kings College London and the University of Bristol, among others.

LEAF contains criteria which lab users can implement in areas such as waste and recycling, equipment management and procurement. Criteria are divided into Bronze, Silver or Gold levels. A key feature of LEAF is that it allows users to quantify impact in money saved and carbon avoided. 

Analysis of the pilot showed that each reporting lab group achieved average annual savings of £3,700. The total reported savings over the two-year pilot across all groups was £641,000. Of these gains, 64% came from energy bill savings, 23% savings from research grants that are used more efficiently, and 11% waste savings.

All this is equivalent to eliminating 648 tonnes of carbon dioxide (tCO2e) annually, the same as taking 140 passenger vehicles off the road in a year.

Taking the offering nationwide

LEAF will be adopted institution-wide across all labs at the University of Bristol, and a few more are progressing to this target in 2021. With funding from UCL’s Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF), managed by UCL Innovation & Enterprise, LEAF has now been adapted as an intuitive online tool which will be made widely available in early 2021. User feedback has been incorporated from the trial, making it easier for more institutions to follow suit. 

LEAF is intended for anyone working in a lab, including in chemistry, biology, medicine, information technology, and engineering, as well as some clinical labs for example in NHS areas. The LEAF team is also engaging with research funding bodies to explore how sustainability can be incorporated from the outset of research activities. 

Richard Jackson, Director of Sustainability at UCL, said: “The UK is responsible for producing a range of new innovations, including in clean technology. But to address the climate emergency it’s essential that sustainability is integrated at every stage of the research process. Research intensive universities like UCL and others must lead by example. We believe LEAF can be an important step in making the vision of sustainable science a reality.”  

Dr Celia Caulcott, UCL’s Vice Provost (Enterprise), added: “UCL’s innovative community has an abundance of transformative ideas that come from every corner of the institution, professional services as well as academic departments. At UCL Innovation & Enterprise we help realise the full potential of these ideas for the benefit of wider society and the economy. LEAF is a fantastic example of this.” 

To find out more about how your lab or institution can use LEAF, please contact m.farley@ucl.ac.uk


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Photo © Neil Roberts