Biobanks offer great potential to researchers by saving them the effort and resources required to gather, store, and manage samples and data. Through the pooling of extensive data sets, known as “big data,” researchers can tackle crucial questions about public health on a local and global scale. However, even though biobanks are promoted as a beneficial resource for the public, not enough attention has been given to understanding how they affect the environment. The conversations surrounding biobank management fail to address their environmental consequences adequately. This is a worrying oversight because biobanks do have a significant carbon footprint, and it’s crucial to address this aspect when talking about how they should be governed.
Challenges in Decarbonizing Biobanks
The environmental impact of biobanks stems from the storage and handling of biosamples, mainly because of the energy required to operate ultra-low temperature freezers. Moreover, these freezers often demand specialized temperature-controlled spaces and need to be replaced at regular intervals, further contributing to their ecological footprint.
Most biobanks rely on ultra-low temperature freezers, and reducing energy usage is a major challenge for biobanks. Many use liquid nitrogen (LN2) for long-term storage of biological materials, as it provides a stable ultra-low temperature environment. However, there is a lack of comprehensive information regarding the costs and consumption of LN2 as well as the electricity usage throughout the lifespan of an ultra-low temperature freezer.
A comparison between low-and middle-income countries (LMICs) and high-income countries (HICs) makes it apparent that LMICs have a smaller number of biobanks per country, and their facilities are less well-equipped to reduce energy consumption and carbon footprint. The topic of decarbonization has not been given much consideration in LMICs, primarily due to the potential financial investments required to implement such measures. For LMIC biobanks, investing solely in high-quality deep freezers to achieve decarbonization is a financially challenging proposition, even if they understand the urgency of decarbonization. Currently, LMIC biobanks tend to prioritize cost-effectiveness, opting for low-cost freezers that consume a significant amount of electricity and emit high levels of heat. These low-cost freezers often do not comply with CFC/hydrochlorofluorocarbon (CFC/HCFC) regulations and do not use environment-friendly reagents.
Approaches for Decarbonization in LMIC and HIC Biobanks
HICs have the financial means to embrace energy and LN2-efficient technologies. It is necessary to test and gradually implement these technologies in current biobanking facilities and networks. Additionally, HICs should develop methods that enable the storage of larger quantities of substances at room temperature, thereby reducing the requirement for heating or cooling equipment.
On the contrary, LMIC biobanks lack the financial resources to achieve decarbonization through investment in advanced technology and equipment. However, this should not stop them from working towards decarbonization. They should focus on attaining decarbonization by employing creative approaches within their existing facilities and scheduling timely maintenance of equipment, as well as implementing behavioral and operational changes. One strategy for behavioral change in LMIC biobanks is adopting a just-in-time model, which involves reducing the quantity of samples stored for long-term purposes, thereby ensuring the optimal utilization of the limited storage space. LMIC biobanks should prioritize serving immediate and short-term collections by actively communicating their needs with stakeholders. An operational change could involve collaborating with operating theaters to obtain tissues, thereby minimizing the requirements for processing and transportation. Other measures that LMIC biobanks can adopt include utilizing energy-efficient office lighting, optimizing heating and air conditioning systems, promoting a paperless culture within the biobank, and incorporating energy-star ratings as purchasing criteria for equipment to encourage manufacturers to consider energy efficiency in future designs.
Leverage a Biorepository Management System for Enhancing Environmental Sustainability
Using a biorepository management system, also called Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS), enables biobanks to decrease their carbon emissions and enhance the sustainability of their operations. Employing a biorepository management system eliminates the need for paper-based records and documentation. This results in a reduction in paper usage and printing, thereby resulting in a diminished carbon footprint linked to paper production, transportation, and disposal. A Biorepository Management System mirrors the storage setup of biobanks enabling biobankers to swiftly locate samples without the need for opening multiple freezers and going through racks and shelves to locate them. This functionality helps reduce temperature losses in freezers and decreases the chances of sample quality getting compromised. Integration with Temperature Monitoring Systems also enables biobanks to ensure that adequate temperatures are maintained. Such systems help curb unnecessary electricity expenditures, thereby minimizing the carbon footprint. Biobanks can enhance their environmental sustainability, streamline record-keeping processes, and enhance data accuracy by embracing digital documentation and utilizing a biorepository management system.
Decarbonization in the field of biobanking should not be perceived as a mere theoretical exercise. Its significance is poised to grow more prominent as global energy costs escalate, making it a pathway towards a superior biobanking approach. Consequently, technological advancements, heightened awareness of the present circumstances, and changes in behavior are essential elements in the pursuit of a better future for biobanking, even though the specific strategies adopted may vary between high-income countries (HICs) and low-and-middle-income countries (LMICs). The incorporation of a biorepository management system is vital for decreasing the environmental impact of biobanks by digitizing their processes. By engaging in focused discussions on this subject, the industry is likely to generate well-informed and actionable recommendations tailored to the unique needs of biobanks in the near future.
Author: Shonali Paul, Chief Operating Officer at CloudLIMS.com