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Making Chemicals Naturally

  • By John Warner
  • Posted 04.12.12
  • NOVA

The field of green chemistry is all about designing products that are safer, more energy-efficient, and more cost-effective to produce. In this opinion piece, chemist John Warner argues that in order to advance the field we need to start by improving the way we educate the next generation of chemists.

More than 30 years ago, when I was an undergraduate student in chemistry, the world was so very different! I remember listening to music on vinyl records. I entered programing instructions into a computer the size of a large cargo van. Now, more than 30 years later, I find myself listening to music with mp3 files on my wristwatch. My tiny mobile telephone has more computing power than hundreds of "cargo van" computers put together.

Conventional synthetic chemical processes require filters and scrubbers to help protect the environment. Enlarge Photo credit: © TommL/iStockphoto

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

The rate at which technology is developing is a testament to the ingenuity and imagination of the designers of these technologies, and new chemicals are at the heart of many of them. But in our haste to invent and create new technologies, we've also created unintended consequences. You cannot open the newspaper, turn on the radio, or scan the internet without finding a report that describes the toxicity or negative impact on the environment of some commercial product—red dyes that cause cancer, plasticizers that cause birth defects, linings in cans that are endocrine disrupters…or not?

Just imagine if Dr. Martin Luther King had said, "I have a nightmare," instead of "I have a dream?"

The questions and concerns can leave us somewhat paralyzed. Just as with global climate change, there are people who are certain of their facts on both sides of the debates. The general public winds up confused and frustrated. Isn't science supposed to be about facts? How can people's "opinions" matter? Shouldn't whether something is toxic, dangerous, or harmful be a black and white situation? And how can we protect human health and the environment if we don't know? At the end of the day it's no wonder that many despair.

The traditional approach to making new chemicals includes the use of toxic solvents and reagents. Enlarge Photo credit: © elkor/iStockphoto

I believe that we can change the way we deal with chemicals and the environment, but our starting point cannot be despair. Just imagine if Dr. Martin Luther King had said, "I have a nightmare," instead of "I have a dream?" I cannot imagine he would have been nearly as successful in changing the world.

A NEW APPROACH TO CHEMISTRY

What few people realize is that there is real cause for hope. That hope is what's called green chemistry—a new approach to designing the chemicals at the heart of millions of products, and an approach that avoids the wasteful, "heat, beat, and treat" methods that are a central part of chemical engineering today.

Green chemistry is not just responsible, it's also practical.

It's a lot better to prevent waste in the first place than to treat it or clean it up after it's been created. Green chemists do this by finding organic molecules with the properties they're looking for, and that break down readily into innocuous products rather than lingering in the environment. We think about every aspect of the process of making chemicals with an eye toward efficiency and sustainability. For example, we try to avoid the use of often toxic agents like solvents, and we reduce the amount of energy required to power equipment and heat things up. After all, if Nature makes everything at ambient temperatures and pressures, why can't we?

Pesticides, weed killers, fertilizers, and many other toxic chemicals can accumulate in ecosystems. Enlarge Photo credit: © Jeremy Edwards/iStockphoto

Green chemistry is not just responsible, it's also practical.  One of its core tenets is that green chemicals must work at least as well, if not better than, existing alternatives. They're also cheaper: removing hazardous materials generates cost savings associated with handling, transportation, and disposal.  This combination presents industries with opportunities for competitive advantage.  We estimate that only 10% of current technologies are environmentally benign, and another 25% could be made benign relatively easily, and the remaining 65% have yet to be invented!

THE NEXT GENERATION OF CHEMISTS

All too often we become embroiled in dealing with individual hazardous molecules. We debate their toxicity, what government policies should be put in place to regulate them, or how to remove them or neutralize them from the environment. We should really be asking questions not just about the molecules themselves, but about how we educate the chemists who make them in the first place. After all, why would a chemist make a red dye that is a carcinogen? Or design a plasticizer that can cause birth defects?  For the most part, I believe that chemists care about human health and the environment—they just aren't trained to think about how to make chemicals that aren't toxic.

Designing chemicals that degrade at the end of their lifetimes will ultimately help make drinking water safer. Enlarge Photo credit: © Tarek El Sombati/iStockphoto

To get a degree in chemistry, no university in the country—or even in much of the world—requires all students to learn about how chemicals can disrupt living things. Sure, chemists training to become toxicologists will be offered a course or two in that area, but for students who go on to work in university, government and industrial labs—the very people who are inventing new materials for society—it is highly unlikely that they will ever have a course that prepares them to identify and eliminate the ways chemicals can cause environmental damage.  

Any chemist can make a new molecule, potentially even the most potent neurotoxin or carcinogen in human history.

When you stop and think about it, this is shocking. Many professions have licensure that they are required to maintain be able to practice their trade, including doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, architects, and engineers. They must periodically renew skills to demonstrate that they are up to speed on new innovations.  But there is no such process for chemists. Any chemist can make a new molecule, potentially even the most potent neurotoxin or carcinogen in human history, and never in their education have they been required to learn how to anticipate these impacts!

This is not a condemnation of the field of chemistry. We owe much of the improvement of the quality of life for billions of people on the planet thanks to advances in medicines, food production, and materials for shelter. But for some strange reason the way we teach chemistry has evolved without making toxicology part of the curriculum. When chemists and engineers encounter hazardous materials, they design add-on technologies to mitigate exposure to humans and the environment. We wear gloves, masks and goggles to protect people, install scrubbers and filters in smokestacks to protect the air, seas and land. But this only protects people and the planet for part of the lifetime of the material. And every so often, the protective technology fails and a chemical disaster is the result.

A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE

The green chemistry revolution should give us hope for the future. If we can start to train chemists to anticipate potential harm—if they can learn about the principles of green chemistry—maybe in the future we will live with fewer hazardous materials. And it appears that change is on the way. Colleges and universities around the world are starting to integrate green chemistry into the chemistry curriculum. Companies are embracing the principles of green chemistry as part of the product development processes. 

Using bio-based renewables such as bamboo instead of petroleum-based materials will have long-term benefits to society. Enlarge Photo credit: © Nikada/iStockphoto

And yet there is no magic switch that we can throw that will immediately transform all technologies to be green. Modern chemistry has been around for more than a century and a half. Science grows in fits and starts, with countless parallel incremental advances. As time progresses and governmental funding mechanisms begin to allocate resources to the invention and discovery of green chemistry technologies, things will happen. Green chemistry is not a panacea that will solve all of the problems facing society. But it outlines the role that chemists and other molecular scientists can play in bringing about a truly sustainable future.

John Warner Dr. John Warner, PhD, is one of the founders of the field of green chemistry and the President and Chief Technology Officer for The Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry. Dr. Warner’s recent work in the field of semiconductor design, biodegradable plastics, personal care products, solar energy, and others are examples of how green chemistry can be incorporated into commercially relevant applications.

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