“Green” Chemistry — at the intersection of economics and environment

Until a few days ago, I did not even know that there is an emerging field of research and production called “Green” Chemistry. I am writing this piece because I suspect that many others also do not know about this development — and I think we should all know of this development. (I found out about “green” chemistry because my son has got a job with a firm that is a pioneer in this field.)

We are so used to thinking that modern chemical products work against the environment. We have all come to think of plastic bags as a problem for the environment. And, what about fertilizers and pesticides? Not natural. (I never use pesticides/insecticides in my garden –and almost never use fertilizer.) We just tolerate these types of products because they are convenient, and it is hard to get rid of them from our lives.

So, “green” chemistry sounds like an oxymoron. Wait. Read on.

In 1998, Paul Anastas, a professor at Yale, and John Warner, professor at University of Massachusetts, wrote a book Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice that laid out what has come to be called the Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry. I am copying below four of the principles that I found to be particularly relevant for the environment.

Design for Energy Efficiency

Energy requirements of chemical processes should be recognized for their environmental and economic impacts and should be minimized. If possible, synthetic methods should be conducted at ambient temperature and pressure.

Use of Renewable Feedstocks

A raw material or feedstock should be renewable rather than depleting whenever technically and economically practicable.

Design for Degradation

Chemical products should be designed so that at the end of their function they break down into innocuous degradation products and do not persist in the environment.

Real-time analysis for Pollution Prevention

Analytical methodologies need to be further developed to allow for real-time, in-process monitoring and control prior to the formation of hazardous substances.

Is this being applied in the real world?

The U.S. EPA is supporting it. See a video here. The EPA sponsors a Green Chemistry Challenge. The categories are:

· Focus Area 1: Greener Synthetic Pathways

· Focus Area 2: Greener Reaction Conditions

· Focus Area 3: The Design of Greener Chemicals

· Small Business* (for a technology in any of the three focus areas developed by a small business)

· Academic (for a technology in any of the three focus areas developed by an academic researcher)

· Specific Environmental Benefit: Climate Change (for a technology in any of the three focus areas that reduces greenhouse gas emissions)

Here are some real-world examples

Biodegradable Plastics

NatureWorks uses microorganisms to convert cornstarch into a resin. Their product is used to replace rigid petroleum-based plastic used in yogurt containers and water bottles.

Novomer, where my son works, says that it can produce a biodegradable polymer that has the potential to replace many of today’s common thermoplastic and packaging materials. Novomer also says that it has has a 20–50% lower cost and is more environmentally friendly than current technologies used to make the same chemicals.

Advances in Medicine

Professor Yi Tang, of the University of California, devised an improved synthesis process to make a drug used to treat high cholesterol. The previous process used hazardous chemicals and released a large volume of toxic waste. A drug company then took the mechanism and optimized the process so the drug could be manufactured more safely, less expensively, and with less of an environmental impact.

Paint and Pigment Chemistry

Modern paints reduce toxic chemicals released as paints dry, substitute safer pigments for some poisonous colors, and reduce toxins when the paint is removed.

Manufacturing

Many of the processes used to make products relay on toxic chemicals or could be streamlined to reduce use of resources and release of waste. Green chemistry seeks to develop new processes and improve conventional production methods.

Conclusion

“Green” chemistry is still at the early stages of its development. As someone who has seen how far renewable energy and energy efficiency have come in the last 20 years, I look forward to an even more rapid development of “green” chemistry.

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