AstraZeneca R&D lab achieves Energy Star rating with ultrasonic flowmeters

The instrumentation was key in achieving 30-percent energy savings.

The accurate ultrasonic metering gave the facilities team the empirical data they needed to verify they had met or exceeded the 30-percent energy savings well within the five-year window. Graphic courtesy of FLEXIM Americas Corporation
The accurate ultrasonic metering gave the facilities team the empirical data they needed to verify they had met or exceeded the 30-percent energy savings well within the five-year window. Graphic courtesy of FLEXIM Americas Corporation

As one of the world’s five largest pharmaceutical companies, AstraZeneca researchers pride themselves on their spirit of innovation. Nowhere can this spirit be better seen than at the company’s American research and development (R&D) facilities in Waltham, Massachusetts.

One of the team’s most recent innovations was the launch of a new BioHub in Waltham in late 2015 with financial assistance from the state of Massachusetts. The BioHub is one of the largest life science research facilities of its kind with more than 700 scientists and research and development (R&D) experts on-site in Waltham, including those from eight industry-related collaborating companies who share AstraZeneca’s facilities and ideas.

"No one company has all the good ideas; it takes multiple partnerships and extensive collaboration to reach our goals," said Paul Hudson, president of AstraZeneca US.

But the BioHub is only the latest innovation at the Waltham R&D facility. The first was the design of the buildings.

Efficient building design

The 64-acre site currently has 260,000 square feet of labs, offices and the central utility plant. AstraZeneca held a Master Plan Competition with some of the major criteria being 1.2 million square feet of space to provide for future growth, efficient use of land and minimization of distances employees must travel on-site. Extremely important to the selection of a design was that the plan be respectful of landscape and the community. It was essential to AstraZeneca that the buildings connect with nature and blend with the surroundings. The winning plan by the Swedish architectural firm Wingårdhs initially consisted of five buildings interconnected at a central atrium to house the original 450 employees. The design closely followed an AstraZeneca’s set guiding principles for the design of the buildings.

  1. A standard design approach should be used throughout the buildings.
  2. The design should be able to accommodate changes efficiently.
  3. The interior of the buildings should have an abundance of natural light and wood finishes.
  4. The design should facilitate communications between the researchers and noise levels should be low.
  5. Passive cooling beams would be used in the office and conference areas to minimize energy use and to further reduce noise levels.

Design criteria for each type of laboratory module, such as persons per bay, lab-to-support space ratio, bench length and office-to-cubical ratio were provided by AstraZeneca.

Wingårdhs’ winning design incorporated the use of internal glass partitions to allow maximum natural light into the work areas. This element was carried out even to the fume hoods. Hoods were custom built with side-, top- and front-vision panels to allow natural light into the hood workspace. The laboratory casework is a modular spine-based system. The cantilevered units use standardized components and are height adjustable.

AstraZeneca chose laminated casework and benchtops for most labs and, the casework has proven to be durable. The fume hoods have a sloped vertical sash and are suspended from the spine, as is the casework. All chemistry work must be performed in the hoods per company policy and the hoods are equipped with an adjacent ventilated chemical cupboard. The laboratories also feature ventilated pump and waste cabinets. The pump cabinets reduce the possibility lab odors and noise levels as well. Many labs also include ventilated equipment enclosures, auxiliary exhaust drops, bench downdraft plates and ventilated sinks.

Energy-efficient HVAC technology

The heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system is based on an energy-efficient, variable air volume design. To minimize noise levels, sound attenuation was installed on the inlet and outlet air. All areas except the atrium are supplied with 100-percent outside air. The central utility plant houses the steam boilers, chillers, compressed air, fire pump, emergency/backup electrical generator and main electrical distribution panels. The facility building operating system (BAS) is by Johnson Controls and the utility plant uses a GE Energy Management system. The open site and building design were noticed by potential recruits for its support of compression and reduced noise levels. The complex won R&D Magazine’s 2001 Lab of the Year Award.

Focus on energy

AstraZeneca focuses on innovation and has been dedicated to environmental and energy policies that improve the working environment and create energy savings throughout the years.

In 2010 global management dictated that all locations should become 30 percent more energy-efficient by 2015.

This mandate created a challenge for Facilities Systems Specialist Bruce MacGregor and his colleagues because the 10-year-old had installed the most energy-efficient systems they could when they were built, including the Johnson Controls BAS system and GE Energy Management system.

Energy Star rating

In a convenient coincidence, local management at Waltham had recently assigned MacGregor the project of qualifying the office building an Energy Star rating. This project would entail much of the same improvements that would be done for the entire complex to meet its 30 percent savings goal.

"The original installation had used magnetic meters to measure hot and chilled water output from our HVAC system," said Jeff Chase, former facilities specialist for AstraZeneca in Waltham, who was involved in the energy savings upgrade. "That was fine for managing the output of our heating and air conditioning systems, but now we would have to submeter the individual buildings so we could identify where energy was not being used efficiently and correct it."

Looking for a metering solution

"We were generally pleased with the accuracy of the mag meters," said MacGregor. "But they have some problems that eliminated them as a choice for submetering. Because they are intrusive, they cost us a lot to maintain. They would collect particulates from the direct contact with the water, which degraded accuracy over time, and they would need to be extracted and cleaned regularly, a time-consuming procedure. The idea of retrofitting magmeters as submeters eliminated them from consideration. Not only were they a problem to maintain, but we couldn’t afford the downtime for our hot and chilled water systems, particularly those used in our R&D processes."

The search began for new submetering for AstraZeneca’s Waltham R&D facility.

"It’s one thing to know intrinsically that your HVAC system is energy-efficient. It’s another thing to prove to headquarters that you have met their goal of 30 percent improvement in energy efficiency. Electrical submetering was easy to achieve. And we were able over the five years to leverage some energy savings practices off of capabilities that were already in place such as our BAC and energy management systems. We put in an extra dashboard so we could bring all of our data to the forefront and get an in depth understanding of the operation of the building. With all of that data we knew we would be able to thoroughly analyze it and fine-tune systems that were already in place and correct areas that were not efficient. The problem was the submetering of our HVAC use in individual buildings."

MacGregor and his team started with an internet search for flowmeters that would meet their criteria.

"Our criteria were pretty straight forward," said MacGregor.

"We wanted flowmeters that (1) were easy to install and didn’t require shutting down operations; (2) were, of course, accurate across a wide range that included low flow because we shut down the complex at night but still need to know how much energy is being used; and (3) were essentially maintenance- and calibration-free.

Ultrasonic metering solves the problem

"Our search kept indicating that ultrasonic flowmeters came closest to meeting our criteria, but we were reluctant to move in that direction because we had had some bad experience with ultrasonics in the past and because most of ultrasonic meters we found were not good at low-flow measurements."

Most, but not all.

"We found a manufacturer whose website claimed great accuracy across a wide range, including low flow," said MacGregor. "We identified their local rep firm and arranged for a demonstration."

"They were looking at accuracy and ranges and capabilities," said Brad Selmon of rep firm M.A. SELMON Company.  "Bruce had used an ultrasonic meter previously from a major manufacturer with many divisions. Like many large companies, they were slow to upgrade their technology. FLEXIM had a better device using more up-to-date technology, plus they had added accurate low flow measurement capability. During the submittal process they were rightfully skeptical and had us put together a detailed specification analysis comparing their ultrasonic capability with the mag meters they were originally using based on turndown, ease of installation, installed accuracy, long term reliability and low flow sensitivity."

The specification analysis was thorough and enough to convince MacGregor to try out the ultrasonics on the office building for the Energy Star certification.

How ultrasonic flowmetering works

"One of the major benefits of ultrasonic flowmeters is that, unlike traditional meters, they contain no moving parts and do not need frequent calibration and maintenance," Selmon explained. "Measurements are made using the transit-time difference method. It exploits the fact that the transmission speed of an ultrasonic signal is affected by the flow velocity of the fluid. An ultrasonic signal moves slower against the flow direction of the medium and faster with the flow direction.

"The meter sends ultrasonic pulses through the medium, one with the flow direction and the second against it. The meter’s transducers work alternately as transmitter and receiver. The transit time of the signal sent in the flow direction is shorter than that of the signal sent against the flow. The meter measures the transit time difference and calculates the average flow velocity. Since the ultrasound signals propagate in solids, the meter can be mounted directly onto the exterior of the pipe noninvasively."

Success on both fronts

After getting empirical proof on the effectiveness of ultrasonic flowmetering on the office building for Energy Star certification, the meters were added to the other buildings in the R&D complex to provide empirical data that MacGregor’s team met the 30-percent energy reduction goal set by corporate management. They exceeded that goal and achieved the Energy Star certification for the office complex.


Izzy Rivera is the director of technical operations/product manager for FLEXIM Americas Corporation. He has been involved with the development of ultrasonic flow measurement for 37 years and is a co-founder of FLEXIM Americas, a subsidiary of FLEXIM GmbH. He can be reached at 631-492-2300.

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