Posts Tagged ‘green chemistry’
Almost ten years ago, journalist Brendan Horton assessed the state of Green Chemistry for the prestigious journal Nature. It makes interesting reading to compare that article with the current state of the the field. Take a look and send comments if you would like.
“Industry is discovering that ‘green’ approaches to chemical processes are not only beneficial to the environment but can boost profits too. It’s fertile ground for collaboration between academic and industrial scientists.”
Question: what surprises you about where Green Chemistry is today?
Meanwhile, from the New York Times, two articles that discuss the environment in the US and in Costa Rica offer some hope and advice:
The U.S. has agreed to forgive $26 million of debt and the government of Costa Rica has committed to invest a similar amount in conserving high-risk natural areas.
Van Jones has been on a crusade to help disadvantaged communities understand why they would be the biggest beneficiaries of a greener America.
© James K. Bashkin, 2007
A very nice discussion of political and technical issues confronting the Green Chemistry community is found on
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
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
The first thing I want to do is point out my own main interest in green chemistry: as a practicing chemist, I have been very attracted to “pollution prevention” as a field of research and development. While it may seem obvious in today’s world, pollution prevention wasn’t always a high priority. The concept is: it is far better to avoid pollution in the first place than to try to clean up pollution after the fact.
The goal of this blog will be to discuss the ideas of Green Chemistry in non-technical terms, though I will provide links and references to relevant technical articles for the specialist. I will try, eventually, to cover all of the key ideas in Green Chemistry, not just my personal favorites. You might wonder, however, why I enjoy a focus on pollution prevention. This is because:
- Pollution prevention is something that nearly all chemists can work on.
- Pollution prevention can provide significant economic benefits to companies, making them likely to use new technology and reduce pollution.
- Pollution prevention doesn’t require changing a product, simply the way a product is made. This also makes adoption of the technology more likely.
- Much industrial chemistry of today is based on chemical reactions that are over a hundred years old.
- We have learned so much chemistry in the last hundred years that we have a good chance of entirely replacing the older methods.
- Reducing pollution has a dramatic and immediate effect on our air, rivers, streams and oceans.
Before I go any further, I should mention that I have posted in a few other places on this subject:
- I wrote a comment on an article in the excellent blog, Highlight HEALTH, a site for health news and information from a scientific perspective.
- There are also a few posts on my other blog (nearlynothingbutnovels.blogspot.com), which are really out of place because the blog is devoted to reviewing fiction and crime fiction. But, I had only just started blogging, I felt a need to write, and I had an outlet available. Now the time has come to break out in a new direction in a new blog.
- You can see a list of books on Green Chemistry and related topics by clicking here and going to page 2. Note: in the interests of full disclosure, these books were written by friends or acquaintances of mine.
I will reveal conflicts of interest to help you judge what I say. Comments and questions are always welcome and appreciated.
© James K. Bashkin, 2007