(good) Green chemistry will save the world

Last week the Sus­tain­ability Com­mittee invited John Warner to speak to the North­eastern com­mu­nity about the “green chem­istry move­ment,” which he helped create in the mid-​​nineties. I real­ized during his talk that despite spending five years in the chem­ical industry and another five studying with a pro­fessor who was per­son­ally inter­ested in the area of green chem­istry, I really had no idea what it actu­ally is.

Chem­istry in gen­eral has a bad rap, which is crazy because without it our uni­verse would simply not exist. If you Google “chem­ical def­i­n­i­tion” the first (and only) full def­i­n­i­tion to appear is:

A com­pound or sub­stance that has been puri­fied or pre­pared, esp. artificially.

But that’s totally wrong…or at least incom­plete. Here’s a better one from The Collins Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary that I found by clicking the second or third search result:

Any sub­stance used in or resulting from a reac­tion involving changes to atoms or molecules.

Do you see the dif­fer­ence? The first one says “esp. arti­fi­cially” and talks about purifi­ca­tion and prepa­ra­tion, which are things humans do to chem­i­cals in the lab. The second focuses on the very fun­da­mental basis of chem­istry — reac­tions, atoms, mol­e­cules. They are all around and inside of us. The key­board I’m pounding on to write this is made of some kind of plastic (a chem­ical). The water I’m drinking to keep myself from over­heating about this debate is a chem­ical. The sticky notes cov­ered in ink let­tering and strewn around my desk con­tain a whole bunch of chem­i­cals all in one little package. I’m chem­i­cals — I’m sugar and water and ATP and DNA and proteins!

All of these mol­e­cules have to be syn­the­sized, one way or another. In the body, our cel­lular machinery does a lot of it. In the lab it hap­pens in beakers and reac­tors and flasks. But they are all chem­i­cals, regard­less. They all come from some kind of chem­istry.

Okay fine, so where am I going with all this? Our world has a lot of prob­lems, every­body knows it. I’d argue that pol­lu­tion and con­sump­tion are among the worst of them. So, everyone runs around with their “Go Green” fabric shop­ping bags filled with BPA-​​free water bot­tles trying to make a dif­fer­ence. But how much of a dif­fer­ence are we actu­ally making? John Warner believes we need to go back to the foundations:

Reac­tions. Atoms. Molecules.

Green chem­istry, he said, isn’t about the debate over whether BPAs will kill us but rather training our aca­d­emic and indus­trial chemists to think green from the begin­ning — to syn­the­size mol­e­cules that won’t be a problem in the first place.

Aston­ish­ingly, he told us that there is no chem­istry grad­uate pro­gram in the country that requires a tox­i­cology class. This means that the chemists who the­o­rize and syn­the­size new chem­i­cals for a living have no idea whether the things they are cre­ating will be harmful to the body or the envi­ron­ment. On the other hand, India and China don’t let a single chemist grad­uate without these sort of classes.

Mean­while, industry is chomping at the bit for chemists with tox­i­cology and green chem­istry know-​​how. In their absence, com­pa­nies are offering their own post-​​academic training programs.

Warner sug­gests that if we know what we’re dealing with and where we want to go, we can start filling the green chem­istry “toolbox” with options to syn­the­size a healthier world from the bottom up, instead of trying to recon­figure the cur­rent toolbox of stan­dard chem­istry options.

Another issue, which would be an entire blog post on its own, is edu­ca­tion. The influx of stu­dents into PhD chem­istry pro­grams is steadily drop­ping in this country. We think chem­istry is going to kill us all, so it makes sense that no one in their right mind would want to spend a life­time in the lab sur­rounded by chem­i­cals. But if we start thinking about it dif­fer­ently, start showing stu­dents that with chem­istry they can make a real, mean­ingful impact on the world, they might start to get interested.