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Graduate student Jonathan Chong makes the Chemical Exchange Database his first stop when looking for chemicals - photo by Martin Dee
Graduate student Jonathan Chong makes the Chemical Exchange Database his first stop when looking for chemicals - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 2 | Feb. 7, 2008

Exchange Makes Campus Chemicals Sustainable

By Basil Waugh

Jonathan Chong and Sally Finora don’t know each other, but they swap fluids regularly thanks to a new program at UBC.
They share research chemicals through UBC’s Chemical Exchange Database (CED), an online tool that is helping UBC scientists reduce lab waste and get more bang for their research buck.

The site connects those looking for research chemicals with those who have too much of a given substance. Think of it as a Craigslist for scientists.

“It’s the first place I go when I’m looking for a chemical,” says Chong, a graduate student who is developing new materials that will enable future cars to store hydrogen more efficiently. “It’s faster than going through an external supplier because everything is already on campus.”

The substances have already been paid for, so everything in the database is available for free. “That is obviously a major plus,” says Finora, a lab technician in UBC’s Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering. “It helps to make the most of research funding.”

Burdena Shea, senior manager in UBC’s Health Research Resource Office (HeRRO), says most major universities grapple with how to deal with surplus chemicals.

“An experiment may only need 10 milligrams, but the chemical may only come from suppliers in four-litre quantities,” says Shea, who created the database with colleague Andre Liem. “Scientists often need to buy more of a substance than they require.”

The initiative is a collaboration between three UBC units – HeRRO, the Dept. of Health Safety and Environment (HSE) and the Sustainability Office.

“UBC is one of North America’s ‘greenest’ universities – and the chemical exchange allows researchers to play their part,” says Shea. “And this is doubly important because chemical disposal is very expensive.”

The database, launched in 2004, processed 300 exchanges (1,500 kilograms in chemicals) last year alone and has helped to save an estimated $74,500 in disposal and purchasing costs. In other waste minimization efforts, UBC recycles more than 8,000 litres in solvents and 5,000 litres in photographic waste annually.

“New science students, staff and faculty hear about the exchange during the extensive lab orientations that they receive,” says Noga Levit of HSE. “We think it’s an important program and are really working to increase participation.”

Levit notes that paper-based chemical-sharing systems have existed at universities since the early 1990s. “Basically, you sent in a request form, and heard back a few days later whether they had it or not. The database moves us into real time.”

The database, which can be viewed at www.herro.ubc.ca/ced.aspx, currently lists more than 200 available chemicals, from Ammonium hydroxide to Zinc sulfide. To make a request, researchers simply log on using their Campus Wide Login (CWL) and place an order online. Within 1-2 days the materials will be delivered.

To post a surplus chemical, a researcher simply needs to log on with their CWL and enter the substance, amount and producer. Within 1-2 days, the research services staff will arrive to safely store the materials – or to deliver them to new owners if another lab has already made a request.

For more information on UBC sustainability initiatives, including the university’s 2007 Sustainability Report, visit www.sustain.ubc.ca.

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Last reviewed 19-Feb-2008

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