Cooling with a Conscience: Celebrating this Year's Freezer Challenge Results

This year, UVA Green Labs programs saw a 56% increase in participation in the Freezer Challenge, with thirty nine labs participating across the University.

More often than not, the best solution is also the most sustainable one. While some labs might be hesitant to adopt new, sustainable laboratory practices out of fear of compromising research integrity, this year's Freezer Challenge Winners, Kibbe-Tsihlis Lab’s researchers, “just don’t see how they conflict.”

2023 Freezer Challenge Winner: The Kibbe-Tsihlis Lab
The Kibbe-Tsihlis lab is a multidisciplinary research group of both scientists and physicians. Under Principal Investigators Dr. Melina Kibbe, Dean of the School of Medicine, and Dr. Nick Tsihlis, the researchers explore the unknowns of vascular system biology and work to develop novel therapies for treating vascular diseases. In addition to performing cutting-edge research, the Kibbe-Tsihlis lab is also a leader in sustainability. Their Green Labs Gold Certification, which recognizes the incorporation of sustainability into all aspects of everyday lab life, put them on the sustainability map. However, what catapulted the Kibbe-Tsihlis lab to Green Labs celebrity status was their exceptional performance in this year’s Freezer Challenge.

About the Freezer Challenge

UVA's Freezer Challenge is a part of the International Laboratory Freezer Challenge, an initiative designed to promote best care and maintenance practices for the management of cold storage units in laboratory spaces. Led by two nonprofits - My Green Lab and the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories - the global initiative encourages healthy inter- and intra-institutional competition to achieve greater energy efficiency, sample storage safety, and cost savings. Since 2017, Freezer Challenge participants all over the world have saved a remarkable 44.7 million kWh of electricity and have reduced carbon emissions by over 31,000 metric tons by participating in this program. 

As a part of the challenge, participating labs engage in actions such as defrosting an ultra-low temperature freezer or increasing their units’ temperature setpoints. These actions earn the participant points that are used as a marker for success and competition with other teams. These actions can also be translated into quantitative estimates of energy savings, giving participants a tangible metric for their success.

From left: Kibbe-Tsihlis Lab Manager Robin Siletzky and Principal Investigator Dr. Melina Kibbe
From left: Kibbe-Tsihlis Lab Manager Robin Siletzky and Principal Investigator Dr. Melina Kibbe

More about UVA's Freezer Challenge competition

Not only did the Kibbe-Tsihlis lab’s collective actions during the Freezer Challenge save 47 kWh of energy per day, but this number also almost doubles any other lab’s savings at UVA. From warming two ULT freezers from -80 °C to -70 °C to fully defrosting seven cold storage units, the entire Kibbe-Tsihlis team was invested in creating a high-performing yet sustainable research environment - proving that it’s possible to run a sustainable lab without compromising the research. While one might think performing at such a high level would require a strong push from lab leaders, according to lab manager Robin Siletzky, incorporating sustainable freezer practices into everyday lab life “fell naturally in place” for lab members. 

This year, 39 labs across Grounds participated in the Freezer Challenge. Their collective actions saved approximately 425 kWh of electricity per day - equivalent to removing 21 average American households' energy use from UVA's daily footprint. In addition to creating a safer and more sustainable space to conduct research, participating labs received a freezer de-icing kit from the Green Labs Working Group to encourage the continuation of freezer maintenance practices. 

Although labs account for about 13% of the University’s physical footprint, they account for roughly one third of its energy use. This disparity offers opportunity for high-impact, easily implementable work like the actions involved in the freezer challenge.

Freezers: Potential Energy Hogs

A single ultra-low temperature freezer consumes about 20 kWh of electricity per day, about the same as the daily consumption of a US household. Because of how energy intensive these units are, small actions that can be taken to improve energy efficiency yield great dividends. And while proper freezer care is a good way to reduce electricity consumption, improving freezer maintenance practices offer plenty of other benefits too. 

First of all, a well-maintained freezer provides a safer environment for sample storage, which ensures the safety of irreplaceable scientific research. Maintaining the health of a freezer also helps the unit run more efficiently, which translates to smaller electricity costs and extension on the life of the unit. Lastly, neglected and unhealthy cold storage units tend to leak refrigerants, which are potent greenhouse gasses and pose risks to human health if inhaled.

Thank you, participating lab contestants!

We’re grateful for a lab community at UVA that is so committed to sustainability and reaching our 2030 UVA Sustainability Plan goals. If you’re interested in competing in the 2024 Freezer Challenge, sign up here. We’d like to recognize every participating lab at UVA and the people who led the effort in each group. 

2023 Freezer Challenge Participants

Allison McCrady, M3 Lab

Amelia Reid, Machan Research Group

Angie Best, Isakson Lab

Anthony Bruce, Microvascular Engineering Lab

Cheryl Borgman, Janes Lab

Conrad Niebuhr, Luckey Lab

Dr. Antonio Vinicios Alves da Silva, Moore Lab

Dr. Casandra Hoffman, TransUniversity Microbiome Initiative

Dr. Gaëlle Auguste, Miller Lab

Dr. Glynis Kolling, Computational Systems Biology Lab

Dr. Golam Mohi, Mohi Lab

Dr. Jeffrey Ellena, Biomolecular Magnetic Resonance Facility

Dr. Katia Sol-Church, Genome Analysis and Technology Core

Dr. Mohan Manikkam, Fallahi-Sichani Lab

Dr. Poonam Sharma, Christ Lab

Elizabeth Nelson, Hirschi Lab

Emily Goetz, Castorani Lab

Fiona Flynn, First Lady's Food Lab

Gabi Martinez, Naegle Lab

Gina Calabrese, Farber Lab

Hao Zhang, Ai Lab

Johnson Ung, Loughran Lab

Juliana Jiranek, Gibson Lab

Juliana Trujillo, Griffin Lab

Kurt Langberg, Goldfarb Lab

Kyle McPherson, Bland Lab

Larry St. John, Jesse Beams Lab

Maggie McCartney, Blandy Experimental Farm Field Lab

Michael Chi, Abbas Lab

Michelle Barbeau, Cell Signaling Engineering Lab

Noah Perry, Civelek Lab

Peng Xu, Felder Innovation Lab

Rebecca Roberts, Erisir Lab

Rhea Braun, Ford Research Group 

Robin Siletzky, Kibbe-Tsihlis Lab

Sara Adair, Bauer Lab

Tiffany Melhuish, Wotton Lab

Victoria Breza, Price Lab

Weronika Tomaka, Tamm Lab

For more information on the Freezer Challenge and the Green Labs program, please visit the UVA Green Labs page.

Headshot of author, Charlie Merrick

Charlie Vavrik is a 3rd year Sustainable Labs Student Employee and has worked in the Office for Sustainability since Spring 2023. He’s majoring in Synthetic Biology and does research in the Beenhakker Neuroscience laboratory. He became interested in the Sustainable Labs program after recognizing all the opportunities for high-impact work in lab spaces.