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The Future of Chemistry

This article was written by Jeremy Faludi in July 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

green%20chem.jpg You can't do green design without green materials, and material innovations tend to come from chemists. Chemists also produce many products in their own right: paints, adhesives, cleaning products, whole industries. So what are chemists doing to save the world?

There's currently one famous green chemist in the world: Michael Braungart (founder of EPEA, co-founder of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry and co-author of Cradle to Cradle). The world needs about a hundred more.

We've written before about legislation (mostly in the EU) tightening standards for toxics, and about the huge strides needed to close today's three critical gaps: knowledge (not only in the general public and governments, but in the chemical industry itself), safety (prioritizing hazards and enacting limits), and technology (developing safer, greener alternatives). But legislation can be slow and fickle, and the industry has a huge amount of inertia; many well-funded groups such as the American Chemistry Council lobby for the status-quo. What are chemists doing to lead?

They're doing a lot of things, as it turns out. Some researchers are developing alternative plastics that don't use petrochemicals, some associations are prioritizing green within their members, whole green-chem institutes are being founded, and groups are trying to teach chemists to green their processes. Sustainable chemistry is a baby, born thirty years ago but just now starting to crawl; let's help it get up on its feet.

Greener Plastics

What if that “new car smell” were the smell of fresh-baked potatoes or toasted corn? In the last five years, several bio-plastics manufacturers have come to market, and more are in the lab. Rodenburg Biopolymers in the Netherlands makes potato-starch plastic for disposable cutlery and packaging, and several companies in China sell corn-starch or potato-starch cutlery; enough that it has a buzzword, "spudware". NatureWorks PLA has a solid enough toe-hold in the market to be old news to many. A less-well-known competitor is PHA by Mechabolix. PHA has much better engineering properties than PLA (you can't make a cell phone case out of pure PLA, but you could make it out of PHA); however, it has two serious downsides. According to this excellent year 2000 Scientific American article (re-posted on, manufacturing PHA "would consume even more fossil resources than most petrochemical manufacturing routes." The second downside is that manufacturing it cheaply requires genetic modification of the corn crops.

Last year, Richard Wool at the University of Delaware created chicken feather and soy composite circuit boards. Not only do they replace the non-recyclable, energy-intensive fiberglass and epoxy materials, they are "a lighter, stronger, cheaper product with high-speed electronic properties." This is especially relevant because the circuit board often has the highest ecological impact of any part in a computer or other consumer electronics device--more than the plastic case, and sometimes more than the electronic components on the board. The chicken feather / soy composite could also be used as a structural material for other applications. For years, the university's ACRES team (Affordable Composites from Renewable Sources) has been researching different chemical pathways and feedstocks to determine the highest-performance and lowest-cost ways of making plastic out of soy.

Perhaps the most exciting is making plastic that sequesters CO2. Two years ago, Geoff Coates's lab at Cornell University developed a polystyrene-like plastic made out of CO2 and orange peels. Now he has a small startup company, Novomer, to commercialize it. As his Cornell group website says, "Although it is estimated that Nature uses CO2 to make over 200 billion tons of glucose by photosynthesis each year, synthetic chemists have had embarrassing little success in developing efficient catalytic processes that exploit this attractive raw material." The pages go on to describe the catalysts they found, which allowed them to achieve their breakthroughs. Keep an eye out in the next couple years for PLC (Polylimonene Carbonate), as well as the other polymers and catalysts that Novomer is making.

Associations and Institutions

Some big-name organizations are starting to push green chemistry. There are green chemistry institutions and networks in over 20 countries around the world; the ACS Green Chemistry Institute in the US has a decent list of them. The British government's Chemistry Innovation Network has a strong sustainability initiative called the "Crystal Faraday partnership". They make the importance of their mission clear:

"In the developed world, it is recognised that only 7% of production materials used in a process end up in the final product and that 80% of products are discarded after a single use. It is essential, therefore, that we seek to reduce material resources and ensure that any materials released to the environment are not toxic, harmful or persistent."

One of the largest and most respected groups of chemists, the UK's Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), is celebrating its 50th year, and its 2007 Jubilee report "is not merely a report of past successes. It is much more a call to arms". The IchemE's chief executive said, “Over the next decade, chemical engineers’ work will be crucial as we tackle global issues such as climate change, waste reduction and access to clean water." The report is all about the progress being made in environmental safety, energy, water, and other sustainability issues. Aimed at laypeople, it's sprinkled with success stories and challenges. For instance, produce bags that allow the fruits or vegetables to 'breathe', increasing shelf life; this doesn't sound exciting until they point out that "Longer life means produce can be transported by sea rather than road transport (which produces 228 times more CO2 emissions) and air freight (which produces 90 times more)." Another nugget: "Cafeteria food waste has a biogas production potential nearly ten times that of animal manure, making it an interesting potential source of renewable energy." And even some biomimicry: they mentioned a new, safer method of industrial bleaching, based on an enzyme from a microbe discovered in Yellowstone National Park.

Training and Guidance

Currently there is little more than a trickle-down of green chemistry knowledge between companies, governments, NGOs, and universities. Companies' chemical information is proprietary, and many environmental impacts have never been measured, much less publicized. Some universities and government agencies have data on a few specific chemicals, but lack a centralized clearinghouse of information. MBDC may have the best database of chemical environmental data, but it is private and expensive information. Opening up the faucets of these knowledge flows, and getting them all in one tub big enough to splash in, may be the most important step for the industry right now. Several groups are trying to crank the taps.

Britain's Chemistry Innovation Network has a roadmap for sustainable technologies, including trends and drivers, specific needs of the industry, the business case, a review of technologies, and case studies. These are aimed at everyone in the chemical industry. UC Berkeley's Framework for California Leadership in Green Chemistry Policy recommends policy directions for lawmakers. For consumers, the Ecology Center put together a consumer guide to toxic chemicals in cars, The site ranks over 200 vehicles in terms of indoor air quality, as well as rating child car seats for brominated flame retardants, and explaining what chemicals to be concerned with and why.

Chemists looking to learn should check out the EPA's 2002 textbook, Green Engineering: Environmentally Conscious Design of Chemical Processes. There's also a newer EPA tool, the downloadable Green Chemistry Expert System. It's a piece of software that "allows users to build a green chemical process, design a green chemical, or survey the field of green chemistry." For a less technical introduction, they have a web page listing their Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry:

1. Prevent waste
2. Design safer chemicals and products
3. Design less hazardous chemical syntheses
4. Use renewable feedstocks
5. Use catalysts, not stoichiometric reagents
6. Avoid chemical derivatives
7. Maximize atom economy
8. Use safer solvents and reaction conditions:
9. Increase energy efficiency
10. Design chemicals and products to degrade after use
11. Analyze in real time to prevent pollution
12. Minimize the potential for accidents

Most of these principles are aimed at being less bad. Michael Braungart argues convincingly that we need to shoot higher than that, we need to aim to be good. Zero is not a positive outcome. But some of them are positive goals, and for those that aren't, even if less-bad is as good as we can do for now, we need to keep a longer-term positive goal in mind.

Some awards are even being given for green chemistry: Britain's Green Chemistry Network has had awards for seven years under various names with the IchemE. The US EPA has a Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award. The Royal Australian Chemical Institute also has a Green Chemistry Challenge Award.

The Future of Chemistry

Will the chemical market start to go green by itself, as a few industries are starting to do? Not yet. Michael Wilson, a researcher at UC Berkeley, told me that "green chemistry entrepreneurs have a difficult time breaking into the market because there are fundamental data gaps in chemical toxicity that prevent buyers from choosing safer chemicals... The market is therefore operating very inefficiently and will require corrections through public policy." He said "by requiring that producers generate and distribute standardized, robust information on chemical toxicity (for use by downstream industry, business, consumers, workers) we will open new markets for green chemistry entrepreneurs." This is the knowledge gap mentioned at the beginning, which the groups described above are working to close.

Wilson was hopeful about green chemistry entrepreneurs he knows, which "have some brilliant products supported by solid data - that reduce costs significantly and also make a substantial environmental contribution." (For instance, Advanced Biocatalytics, and Novozyme.)

But before the market will steer itself towards green, we need to also close the safety gap: "regulations (such as RoHS, WEEE and the REACH) [need] to force clean technology change (that won't happen any other way)." And finally, he argues "state investment in green chemistry research, education, technical assistance, and training will be essential." Such a combination -- new regulations, targeted research and bold commitments to innovation -- will close the technology gap, giving us alternatives and kick-starting new industries on the right path to a bright green future.

Creative Commons Image Credit

Green Chemistry: Changing An Industry is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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Chemistry, like any other modern industry, relies on a growth economy of scale. Currently, it is also dependent of (cheap) oil. Green chemistry will incur in supply problems; the biodegradability and green materials part can be achieved. Green chemistry (and bioplastics, etc.) would need to source from biomass, living matter. But these resources are limited - the food vs. fuel debate would become even more acute.

The way out of this is to switch to bioregional economies, and simply to produce less, mainly for local needs, local markets, and not export-oriented with the urge to grow. This allows to source from local raw materials.

Another issue to be publicly discussed is the use of genetic engineering. Companies are ALREADY using GMO to maximise yields and improve processes.

Posted by: Fabio on 21 Sep 08



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