Beginning concepts and helpful resources for Green Chemistry
Here is a set of useful links to external references for people who would like to learn more, see several viewpoints, or find educational material for students of all ages:
- Green Chemistry at LABS (Labs Achieving Better Stewardship): this site catalogs Green Chemistry websites from around the world, including (but not limited to)
- the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- the American Chemical Society
- the Australian Research Council’s Centre for Green Chemistry
- the Canadian Green Chemistry Network
- the Royal Society of Chemistry (UK)
- the Green Chemistry Network (UK and worldwide)
- the University of Oregon and its Green Organic Chemistry lab
- the Journal of Chemical Education
One of the things that can be confusing to a newcomer is the large number of definitions of Green Chemistry, some of which are devoted to defining what Green Chemistry isn’t.
The simple truth is that there are many ways to do Green Chemistry, and more approaches are being discovered all the time, so no true definition of this rapidly growing field should be static. If somebody wrote a set of rules to define chemistry 10 years ago, for example, they were doing their best at that time to capture the essence of Green Chemistry in a snapshot form. However, while the printed page remains static, science moves on without regard for anybody’s rules.
Some of the ideas that need to be included in up-to-date discussions of Green Chemistry include:
- Energy use
- Greenhouse gases and global warming
- Life cycle analysis (following a product from “birth” to disposal, and hopefully recycling)
Let’s take a brief, first look, at energy use. It is important to account for all of the energy used in each case (say when comparing alternative ways to make a commodity, like nylon fiber). This means looking into any significant fuel and other transportation costs for raw materials and finished products in addition to considering whether a series of chemical reactions gives off heat, or requires heating, when they take place. Reactions that give off heat can be harnessed by to heat the building or other, nearby, chemical reactions. The planning and engineering of a chemical plant is therefore clearly important. However, there are also energy costs associated with tearing down old factories and building new ones, so calculating true energy costs can be complicated. What this often means is that, if somebody tells you about a new discovery that sounds to good to be true, they may be ignoring part of the story (not necessarily intentionally). On the other hand, there have been advances that DO seem too good to be true at first, or too simple to work, and they have turned out to work just the way just the way they were originally described.
These points might hint at the possible danger of mixing politics with science when it comes to making important decisions. It is easy for someone to claim that “forcing companies to be greener” is “bad for they economy”, perhaps as part of a political platform, but such a claim is rarely even close to being true. These sorts of claims have a long history in the US (references to come later), especially when nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) request greater regulation of industry, and industry responds by complaining. The use of increasing numbers of safety devices in automobiles, and increasing gas mileage, certain seem like good examples: US auto makers fought this regulations, perhaps to the death, while foreign automakers simpler gave the consumers what was wanted, safer and more efficient cars.
However, it would be a mistake to lump chemical manufacturing of 2007 with car companies of the 1960’s. Companies of all kinds are now finding tremendous economic benefits to using the principles of Green Chemistry, with good consequences for the environment. We’ll examine some specific cases later.
© James K. Bashkin, 2007