Innovation in the Environmental Lab Industry: Not an oxymoron

(at least at one particular lab)

As an environmental scientist working in the consulting industry, it’s easy for me to think of a laboratory as a giant black box: you send samples in, and you receive a data report back. Everything going on inside that lab that converts your samples into defensible data is simply considered to be “lab magic”.

It’s not a faceless “black box”

Well, it’s not really like that. There are humans in there — lots of them — doing lots of complicated technical things, working diligently so that the data you get back is as accurate as possible and doesn’t suck. Lots of moving parts, lots of touch points, and very complicated workflows. Any number of points can cause huge bottlenecks which could result in report delays, or worse: bad data, or no data at all due to sample loss or any number of potential errors along the way.

Partly due to this complexity, many labs stick to tried and true processes that have worked for them before. And this poses a dilemma: how do you innovate when any change in a process can disrupt a production environment that is finally running smoothly?

ESC Lab Sciences

One particular lab has figured out how to do just that: ESC Lab Sciences in Mt Juliet, Tennessee. Those guys are among very few environmental labs that are continually innovating. It’s probably one of the main reasons they grew from a staff of 5 in 1987 to become the largest single-facility laboratory in the entire United States. They’ve done both simple innovations with big impacts (like putting aluminum plates on the walls in the sample receiving area), as well as really complex technical innovations that are impacting the entire industry. One such innovation introduced by ESC is Reduced Volume Technology.

Reduced Volume Technology

In layman’s terms, it’s just a way to use less sample material to provide the same analytical results at the same accuracy. I’ll explain: currently accepted methodologies for some analytical methods require 1 liter of sample water to run various analytical tests. Yep, an entire liter of water. This begs the question…

When was the last time you had to have 1L of body fluids extracted out of your body for a clinical analysis?

Never ever ever. So why the f*** — in 2015 — do we still submit an entire liter of water to an environmental lab just to run a particular set of analyses? ESC’s Peter Schulert had that same question several years back, and he actually did something about it at his lab that is now impacting the entire industry.

Instead of requiring an entire liter of water to run various analytical tests, ESC Lab Sciences was able to reduce this volume down to only 40 ml of water to run the same tests at the same detection levels. That’s a whopping 25X reduction in volume requirements!!

While ESC did not invent this technology, they were the first to apply it specifically to the environmental lab industry. It took buying new expensive instruments, modifying both the hardware and software, running lots of experiments, and pushing his own teams to make it happen. And now, after 4 years of doing this in their production lab, other labs are finally starting to follow their lead.

Domino-effect benefits of this reduction of sample volume include:

  • reduced solvent usage and emissions (up to 98% reduction in some test methods)
  • easier for consultants…no need to collect so much water, which can be problematic at slow recharge wells
  • reduced FedEx charges in both directions (less weight)
  • almost negligible bottle breakage during shipment in either direction (small bottles break less often)
  • reduced cold room storage requirements (small bottles need less space)
  • less sample material to dispose of

Innovation comes from questioning the status quo, and a bit of hard-headed determination

Reduced volume technology in the environmental lab industry was spearheaded by ESC because Peter Schulert wanted to know why the lab industry was using — and discharging straight into the atmosphere — so much solvent in the first place. He questioned the current practice when he visited pharmaceutical labs and saw practices there that he thought might also be applied in his industry. I’m sure it wasn’t easy to pull off:

  • His CFO probably wondered why they should spend so much money on new instruments when the old ones were working just fine (Agilent GC/MS instruments costs upwards of $140K each)
  • His lab manager probably wondered how the hell they were going to fit research experiments — that ultimately could fail — into their schedules when all their lab techs were super busy already on real projects with tight deadlines

But he did it. And now the entire environmental laboratory industry is following their lead.

I had the opportunity to visit Peter and his team last week, and once again I saw innovation at play, things that other labs will one day also start doing, eventually, maybe. Kudos to Peter and his team for innovating and questioning the status quo in an industry that really needs it.

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