A fresh look at green chemistry

“Problems cannot be solved at the level of awareness that created them.” – Albert Einstein

I had never heard the above Einstein quote until I attended “Green Chemistry: Collaborative Approaches & New Solutions”, a conference hosted by the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry on March 24th, 2011. To my surprise, two separate speakers included this quote in their presentation; by the end of the conference, I understood why. Making materials that are both safe and inexpensive is one of the main challenges in the field of chemistry today. After listening to all of the speakers, I’m convinced that chemists can only overcome this challenge if we consider it an opportunity to think about chemistry in a new way.

The field of green chemistry grew from an awareness among chemists of the environmental and human health effects of many chemicals. Green chemists endeavor to design molecules with toxicology in mind, ultimately replacing hazardous materials that must be contained with materials that are designed to safe. Two of the founders of green chemistry, Dr. Paul Anastas and Dr. John Warner, spoke at the conference about their twelve principles for chemists who are dedicated to creating less hazardous materials. These principles include using safer solvents in synthesis and designing molecules that will degrade into harmless components. Warner refuted the idea that “green chemistry is a set of handcuffs that slows productivity,” citing examples from his own company (Beyond Benign) of chemicals which are both profitable and harmless, such as a green hair dye.

Though I was inspired by Anastas and Warner, the highlight of the conference for me was a presentation from Nobel laureate Dr. Robert Grubbs. The chemistry professor from Caltech discussed his famous olefin metathesis reactions, which now has commercial importance in making pharmaceutical drugs and polymers. His work incorporates the green chemistry principles of using sustainable starting materials and an efficient catalyst. Dicyclopentadiene is made using Grubbs’ catalyst, and it is now used to make longer blades for wind turbines, exemplifying a symbiotic relationship between green chemistry and renewable energy. What is most interesting to me, though, is that Grubbs never intended to contribute to green chemistry and only recently began identifying as a green chemist.

Many chemistry researchers are still uninformed about green chemistry, and this is probably one of the greatest challenges in the mainstream adoption of green chemistry principles. All the legislators, academic chemists, industrial representatives, and toxicologists at the conference agreed on the importance of changing the way that new chemicals are designed, but they are certainly in the minority overall. Warner made the point this way: “Green chemistry isn’t about good and evil.  It’s about fundamental knowledge and the lack of fundamental knowledge.” By spreading this knowledge, I’m hoping that more and more chemists will dedicate themselves to designing molecules that are safe for ourselves and our planet.

Most of the presentations from the BCGC conference are available on youtube.

Leave a Reply