Posts Tagged ‘education’

Test your knowledge of climate change, and see what educators have to say about it, at The New York Times. You may have to sign up for a free New York Times membership to see the story. The educators discuss the natural greenhouse effect and how it is essential for our planet to support life; they distinguish the natural effect from the industrial greenhouse effect. Other frequently-confused matters are clarified, such as the relationship between depletion of the ozone layer and global warming (they are not related in a significant way).

Note that one of the answers given mentions that ethanol burns more cleanly than fossil fuels. This is very true in the sense that fossil fuels contain not only hydrocarbons, they have “impurities” that are nitrogen- and sulfur-containing organic compounds. The nitrogen and sulfur end up as well known air pollution components NOx and SOx after combustion.

However, as previously mentioned on this site on Oct. 8th, predictions of air quality in Los Angeles based on a switch to E85 ethanol-based fuel, and studies of air quality from Brazil, where some cars run on pure ethanol, all show increased amounts of highly-toxic acetaldehyde, formaldehyde and ozone and related species in the air. Formaldehyde and similar compounds damage the lungs, causing inflammation and other problems, and cause serious problems for both healthy people and especially people with asthma. Ozone is a major, direct cause of pollution-related respiratory distress. Formaldehyde is commonly used as a preservative for specimens in biology and medical labs.

If you wish to see the original scientific papers, they are cited here.

As possible explanations for the generation of harmful species from ethanol, I offer the following suggestions:

  • The oxygen in ethanol could, under circumstances of less than ideal combustion, result in formaldehyde and other aldehyde formation.
  • The ready manner in which ethanol absorbs water from the atmosphere interferes with combustion efficiency.

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A very nice discussion of political and technical issues confronting the Green Chemistry community is found on

The Green Chemistry Technical Blog

The site is written/run by a professional chemist (as is this one). The author is Mark C. Reid, and he offers well-reasoned opinions and extensive links to articles, websites and other resources.

Mark indicates that, in spite of the profound role of the US EPA and the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, Green Chemistry

  • “has ironically not made as much impact in the US educational system as it has in Europe or Asia and elsewhere”

He suggests some reasons why the above is true, and why much cynicism remains in part of the US academic community about Green Chemistry (not that this is only a US phenomenon, but we in the US are the top dogs in this particular brand of cynicism).

I’ll suggest another reason: money. Research funding is so tight in the US that “traditional” disciplines are struggling to survive, and I personally know many who have given up academics, especially in the biomedical area. With money tight, the old-school chemical disciplines, which are not necessarily any less important than they ever were, are fighting tooth and nail to survive, and there isn’t much funding left, if any.

  • In perhaps an unusual turn of affairs, we find industry in the US leading the way forward for Green Chemistry in many instances.
    • Why? Because Green Chemistry can, has, does and will affect the industrial bottom line.
  • I make the above statements without in any way trying to sound condescending- I’ve spent over half my career in industry.
    • Industry has always led certain fields, but they only lead when it suits them.
  • Green Chemistry suits people who are actually in the business of doing chemistry on a large scale and have to address issues of waste, safety, energy use, etc.
  • Academic labs have always been far behind industry in these areas, in some cases feeling that the amount of waste they generate is insignificant, so they need not think about it.
    • Part of it is machismo.
    • Of course, I’ve seen that attitude in Europe too, if in slightly different form, with chemists waving unfiltered cigarettes around while they work with explosive solvents, just a few feet from me.
  • So, the laboratory is where some of the educational opportunity is lost in the US (at the graduate level in addition to at the undergraduate level).
  • The chemists of today and tomorrow need to be concerned with Green Chemistry: waste minimization, pollution prevention, energy use, etc.
  • We are not necessarily training them to do so (with notable exceptions, as always).

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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