If you’ve attended any institute of higher education, you’ve probably taken a chemistry class once in your life. So you know that when you start a chemistry lab class, the first thing you go over is the safety rules, and how to handle the harsh chemicals used. Before you start each lab, you also go over what kind of reactants you’re going to use, and how dangerous they could be. But we shouldn’t waste dangerous chemicals. What if I told you there was a whole field of science trying to reduce the interaction with harmful chemicals and do the same experiments with friendly and safe chemicals?
The field is called “green chemistry,” and I’m hoping it can clean up the way we conduct chemical research and engineering. When I get into my research work, I want to make sure I’m using chemicals that are safe, sustainable, and get my product with minimal cost and time.
Green chemistry is a sustainability and safety concept for the world of physical and natural science. You take a given experimental method and try to reduce the use of hazardous and unsustainable material. Experiments that we do in the classroom labs have already taken great strides to reduce our interaction with hazardous chemicals (it’s one reason why you don’t use mercury in thermometers anymore), but the industry of chemical production and research needs to implement these ideals as well.
A perfect example is the use of oil to create some of our most needed products. Let us take a journey through the curious case of phthalic anhydride. It is a compound that commercial industry uses to make dyes, pharmaceuticals and a plasticizer (makes plastic more plasticy). According to Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry, the demand for this compound is 3 million tonnes per year; so it’s a massive need. Industry makes this substance with two reactants — naphthalene or o-xylene, both of which are extracted from oil. The problem you might have guessed is the tendency of a finite resource such as oil to run out (and it will run out). You can see the obvious problem here — no oil, no phthalic anhydride.
There is a solution to the case above, and it has to do with two chemicals that come from nature — furan and maleic anhydride. Through undergraduate research, I saw that you could make products like phthalic anhydride with these two renewable chemicals. That is an obvious solution to the wasteful process that industry is using today, and I feel that using this “greener” method should be considered. Using things that come from renewable sources is more sustainable than oil, especially if they can make the same product with less cost and time. I’d say its a no-brainer, but it’s hard to change the way chemistry has been done for hundreds of years.
With literally millions of chemical processes that make the products we use and food we consume, it is important to discover how we can make them less hazardous and more sustainable. The concept of green chemistry is not a new one, but it is a tool that industry still needs to implement throughout. When I look at what kind of benefits it has (safer chemicals, less waste, less cost) I don’t see how it could be a problem for industry to make changes in their operations. I believe more awareness and publicity are needed for this idea of “green” science to permeate throughout academia and industry.
As students, what can you do to help? Well, whenever you have an experiement to do in a science class, ask the professor why the protocol calls for use of certain chemicals, and if there are less harsh chemicals that can be used instead. When you’re conducting research, implement the ideals of green chemistry and mention how it helped in your publication! The main idea behind science is advancing the human condition. Green chemistry is a step forward to good science.
Do you have ideas for creating green concepts in science? Shoot UMAYR SUFI (firstname.lastname@example.org) an email or tweet him! (@umayrsufi)
Graphic by Jennifer Wu