Chemistry Goes Green, continued

In the United States, efforts are underway to improve chemists' ability to evaluate synthetic chemicals based on the many ways they can interact with living cells. Adelina Voutchkova of the Yale University Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering presented one example of such an evaluation tool at the ACS conference. Also at the conference, Raymond Tice, chief of the U.S. National Toxicology Program's Biomolecular Screening Branch, presented the new toxicology tools being developed by the NTP and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences that will enable scientists in academia and regulatory agencies to evaluate chemicals for the wide range of behaviors green chemistry considerations demand.

Rich Helling, associate director of sustainability/life cycle assessment at Dow Chemical, says his company is training its research and development scientists to do “early screening” of new products and to consider materials from a perspective of “atom and energy efficiency, hazard reduction, and holistic design,” and thus “pick more sustainable projects.”

Green chemistry efforts at Dow have gone into producing a number of industrial chemicals, among them a bio-based plasticizer, explains Helling. They have enabled Dow to meet customers' requests for products that do not contain “particular chemicals of concern, such as phthalates and lead,” says Helling. They have also gone into Dow's production of a new compound to replace a flame retardant that has been discovered to be environmentally persistent and environmentally mobile. And in August Dow for the first time publicly presented its new research and development sustainability footprint tool that is being applied throughout the company's R&D efforts.

“The concept of sustainable chemistry is a great framework for understanding how to approach things,” says Helling. Improving the safety profile of a new process or product is “good process chemistry,” he explains. Any process that is not less hazardous or less complex “slows down your research,” he says.

Next: Education

“The case for green chemistry has been made,” says Amy Cannon, executive director and co-founder with Warner of Beyond Benign, a nonprofit organization devoted to green chemistry education. “What is next? A more systematic approach that's really going to change the way we educate scientists.”

Teaching future chemists what makes a molecule toxic is essential to advancing green chemistry, agrees Warner. “Without this we can't accomplish our goals.”

Green chemistry advocates are approaching this at the professional level, fostering working partnerships between environmental health scientists and synthetic chemists through efforts such as the collaborations being facilitated by the nonprofit Advancing Green Chemistry. They’re also pushing for change in education, creating new curricula for students beginning at the K–12 level and extending through and beyond college and university education.

Warner underscores that simply showing students and professional chemists examples of green chemistry products and asking them to learn the principles of green chemistry is not sufficient, however.

“It would be like showing examples of Russian poetry—an alliteration, an allusion, a time juxtaposition, all in Russian—to people who don't speak Russian and then asking them to write a Russian poem,” he says. What's needed is an understanding of what makes molecules behave—how their chemical composition and structure influences their biological and physical behavior. Creating a molecule to perform a certain task (the traditional goal of synthetic chemistry) without considering the full range of its potential ecological interactions falls short of green chemistry's goals.

Marc Hillmyer and William Tollman are preparing chemistry students for careers in which green chemistry will be a given rather than a novelty. In 2010–11 the University of Minnesota faculty taught a three-credit course in green chemistry for chemistry majors. This information, Hillmyer says, is essential to training the next generation of scientists to create new materials that “don't have negative health consequences, will reduce our reliance on petroleum” and have what Hillmyer calls “programmed end-of-life designs.” By this he means making new synthetic chemicals that are designed “in environmentally friendly ways to be recycled or reconstituted.” Hillmyer, whose specialty is polymers, points out that it's important to “think about this at the front end” rather than after the fact—as shown by the impacts of countless extremely useful but hazardous chemicals.

Like Cannon and Warner, Hillmyer acknowledges that we don't yet have all the tools—educational or toxicological—that are needed.

“This is a great area for growth,” he says. Filling this gap was part of the impetus for developing a green chemistry course that would be part of the general chemistry curriculum.

“We made a conscious choice to teach this to our chemistry majors,” he explains. “We need to get this into the minds of people who are going to work for companies like Dow and DuPont.”

Students seem to need no persuasion: “Our course was oversubscribed. We had to turn people away,” says Hillmyer.

This fall, Cannon and Warner are teaching a course at Simmons College that Cannon says is “most likely the first toxicology course to be required of chemistry majors.” Warner explains that what this class will teach is “mechanistic toxicology,” which will begin to teach students “how to look at a molecule and know if it's toxic.”

Warner uses the term “toxic” broadly, to include molecules that bind to DNA, are greenhouse gases or cause ozone depletion.

“If I could wave a magic wand, mechanistic toxicology would be the moral responsibility of anyone making a material,” Warner says.

Clearly there are no magic wands. But the challenging process of what Anastas describes as “changing how we define goals and performance” to produce new molecules that are more environmentally benign, more economically viable, and that will rival or outperform existing materials, is clearly underway.

ELIZABETH GROSSMAN is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry; High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health; and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Environmental Health Perspectives, Yale e360, Scientific American,, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, and The Pump Handle.

Further Reading

Check out these sources for more insights into the expanding universe of green chemistry products:

EPA Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award winners

EPA Design for the Environment program, lists products with the DfE label, many created using green chemistry principles

EPA Design for Environment products

Green chemistry fact sheet from Beyond Benign

Clean Production Action: Green Screen for Safer Chemicals

Green Chemistry Daily, ongoing news of new green chemistry products, science, and other developments