Saving money, resources and energy with UCL Chemistry

By Alex Green, on 13 February 2014

Dr Charlie Dunnill from UCL Chemistry tells us about his successes in saving money, resources and energy by using a free chemical and equipment cataloguing service.

Within the Chemistry Department, our chemical inventory is very large. We knew this, but really had no idea of the extent to which it was LARGE. We had guessed between 6 and 10 thousand bottles,  and to be honest, we could not be specific about locations, quantities or qualities. Each group had their own database or spreadsheet and nothing talked to anything else and many of them were stored on only one computer. All were out of date.

This was a problem for a number of reasons: we needed to be able to provide lists of certain chemicals to various people due to regulation; we were probably buying and throwing away the same chemical at the same time in different parts of the department; and, worryingly, there was quite a risk associated with not actually knowing what was in the department.

We (UCL) had talked about this a lot – I mean a LOT –but could not agree on a ‘Perfect’ solution. I found Quartzy – an online database where our research group could log all of our chemicals and manage bookings for equipment. This let people see what was stored where, so they could speak to one another and share chemicals and equipment on a cloud based platform. This was logical but pretty revolutionary in our department. Once it was up and running, it started to gain interest from other labs as people could see the efficiencies working and after discussions with the more influential members we decided to roll out Quartzy across the entire department, making for a greater pool of chemicals (frightening thought) to share. We now have a database of twenty thousand bottles of chemicals, each individually labelled and located, representing a vast financial resource (~£50 per bottle… you do the maths!).

Every member of the department is responsible for logging their own chemicals so there is not a huge admin burden on one person. The key is to be really specific in locations (which lab, which shelf, what does the bottle look like?) as it makes it much more efficient when you are trying to find that bottle later. Each bottle has its own Bottle Reference which is an easy to remember three letter reference followed by a year of purchase, e.g. ABC14, so that each bottle can be uniquely identified and located without the need for bar code scanners and long reference numbers and Group Owner so you know who to ask if you want o borrow some.  Keeping it simple is important.

The safety and sustainability benefits have been huge and we are also saving money. If you think about it, we pay for the chemical when we purchase it and then we pay again to get rid of what we don’t need. That’s two costs we can eliminate through sharing as well as the time saving for the researchers who are no longer waiting 3 days for chemicals to turn up. For our department, we have estimated the savings to be up to £90,000 for a year.

Quartzy is also used to manage all the departmental shared kit so that trained users can book time on equipment, maximising the hours of use that the equipment is available for and minimising down time.

All pretty good for an initiative that’s free. No wonder other departments are adding themselves to the system all the time.