Lee Hibbett, Technician Manager, has worked in the School of Pharmacy at the University of Nottingham for the last 32 years and recently set up the Technical Sustainability Working Group (TSWG). The TSWG is a group of lab technicians, from across the University’s Nottingham and Derby campuses, working to embed sustainability within labs.

One big move that they’ve made towards sustainability is purchasing a new solvent recycler to recycle waste acetone, saving 2,000 L of acetone a year that would otherwise go for disposal. That solvent recycler is the Heidolph Hei-Volume Distimatic. We spoke to Lee about why this system was needed and the impact it has had.

Lee Hibbett in front of fume hood with distimatic

In chemistry labs, acetone is used to remove contamination from dirty glassware. These washings are collected in a large waste container by the sink. Prior to purchasing the Distimatic this waste was then collected and sent for specialist disposal, normally incineration or encapsulated in concrete and land fill.

The current cost per bottle of acetone, including waste charge is £9.15. In 2018, the School of Pharmacy bought in 924 bottles, meaning a total of £8,454.60 was spent on acetone.

It wasn’t just the cost that concerned Lee and his team, it was the environmental impact. To make 1 tonne of virgin acetone makes around 2000 kg of CO2, on top of that is the transport from the supplier and to the waste company. Whereas, recycling 1 tonne of acetone makes 400 kg of CO2; this cost is the running of the electrical systems.

Lee looked into the possibility of recycling the acetone, and was introduced to the Distimatic by Richard Buck, one of Radleys’ Technical Sales Specialists. Radleys were able to supply Lee with a demo unit to trial, and he was “very impressed”.

After purchasing the Distimatic, the School of Pharmacy’s acetone waste is now collected weekly from 5 labs and placed into the feed drum by the Distimatic, which is set up to distill the acetone. The clean acetone is then collected in the collection drum and when full, decanted into 2.5 L Winchesters and these are sent back to the labs, so the recycled acetone can be used again to clean the glassware.

We don’t have to just buy and burn.
Distimatic acetone recylcing system at University of Nottingham side angle

The waste ratio is about 1 litre of waste to 6 litres of recycled acetone or if 5000 litres of acetone is used in a year 833 litres will go as waste (this can be furthered processed to recycle more acetone).

The advantages are:

  • The wash acetone is recycled back into the labs
  • A minimal stock is required, no more buying in large amounts (safer)
  • No more large quantities of waste acetone sent away for incineration (greener)
  • The whole unit fits into a standard fume hood
  • Automation means minimal staff time needed to look after it
  • The system will recycle ~3 L of acetone per day
  • Minimal operating costs
Distimatic acetone recycling system at University of Nottingham

With the School of Pharmacy declaring a climate emergency, they needed to look at ways to reduce its carbon footprint. Lee said “Recycling the acetone makes sense as we are saving money (which research grants pay for) and the amount of CO2 made is reduced (to help with the schools climate emergency plan).”

The cost of the Distimatic including rotary evaporator, glassware and Hei-Vac Vario control vacuum pump is ~£20,000. Therefore, the Distimatic will pay for itself within 3-5 years and potentially save 15,000 litres of acetone going to be incinerated.

Going forward, I would like to get another system set up in the Chemistry department. Or see if this system can be made bigger, so more can be recycled on one system.