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Chemistry as nature does it

Nancy Jackson

President, American Chemical Society

“Green chemistry”, says Dr John Warner, “is the science and innovation of creating a material that has a minimal impact on human health and the environment”. One of the world’s leading experts in the field, he adds that it requires “the chemist to consider the downstream implications related to toxicity and environmental impact.”

The founder of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, Dr Warner and fellow chemist Paul Anastas — the assistant administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (USEPA) Office of Research and Development — outlined twelve key principles in their seminal book Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice. Chief among them is the premise that it is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean it up after it has been created.

The principles call for the design and use of safer and more energyefficient chemicals, solvents, and chemical synthesis, and recommends that products be designed for degradation so that at the end of their function they break down into innocuous substances and do not persist in the environment.

Put it simply, green chemistry, also called sustainable chemistry, is akin to working in the same way as Mother Nature. In nature chemistry is carried out at ambient temperatures and ambient pressures using available renewable resources: photosynthesis is a prime example. There is intense global interest.

The American Chemical Society’s (ACS) Green Chemistry Institute aims to enable and catalyze its implementation — and that of green engineering — into all aspects of the global chemical enterprise. Working with industry, educators and students, it has 25 international chapter affiliates helping promote green chemistry through educational outreach in their countries.

When I attend chemistry conferences, particularly in the developing world, it is obvious that there is a strong interest in green chemistry everywhere. My travels and collaborations with colleagues in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa always include discussions about educating students in it and a desire to work together in research in this area. Professors know that students are drawn to study chemistry by a wish to create a sustainable future. Green chemistry is a tool for sustainable development, the most important and popular goal of the chemists I have met in developing countries.

Professor Joseph M.D. Fortunak from Howard University in Washington, D.C. described in the Tropical Journal of Pharmaceutical Research how a professor from Kenya’s Moi University told a workshop in Johannesburg: “Green chemistry is a good idea. But Africa has many burdens, including poverty, war, and the epidemics of HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis. Green chemistry is a priority only if it helps address these issues.” His response was to “propose that the strongest justification for green chemistry in Africa is precisely the opportunity to address the differences between rich and poor in access to technology and creating sustainable economic development.”

The problems green chemistry can address affect every person on our planet. It has the potential to allow us to protect Earth’s environment and the health of its inhabitants and help us preserve its precious and dwindling natural resources. It can help create a global sustainable economy and is a necessary tool for achieving the U.N. Millennium Goals.

The 1990 Pollution Prevention Act is viewed as the catalyst for green chemistry in the United States. The USEPA launched a Green Chemistry Program shortly after it passed, and is a longstanding partner of the ACS Green Chemistry Institute in promoting the practice and its principles.

Each year, the US EPA presents its prestigious Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards to recognize and promote innovative chemical technologies that prevent pollution and have broad applicability in industry. Last year one went to Clarke, a global company which focuses on mosquito control, which developed a way to encapsulate spinosad — an environmentally safe pesticide that is not normally stable in water — in a plaster matrix: this allowed it to be released slowly in water and control mosquito larvae, a huge concern in places such as Africa where malaria is ever-present. The new product, Natular™, does not persist in the environment and is not toxic to wildlife.

Many of the awards are for pharmaceutical work. Last year Merck and Codexis were recognized for the green synthesis of sitagliptin — the active ingredient in JanuviaTM, a treatment for type 2 diabetes — through a process that reduces waste, improves yield and safety, and eliminates the need for metal catalysts.

Green chemistry has seen great progress in the past 20 years and scientists are continuing to look for ways to incorporate it into their research. Industry leaders are responding to consumers’ demands for products and manufacturing processes with less impact on the environment and human health. And government leaders are hearing from citizens who expect them to take strong action against companies that produce unnecessarily hazardous materials and byproducts.

Will this groundswell of public support continue? There is no doubt that green chemistry is critical to the sustainability of our planet and key to environmentally responsible progress for all its citizens. As Dr. Paul Anastas, who is also a former director of the ACS Green Chemistry Institute, puts it: “Everybody wins with green chemistry. We can have a vibrant economy and a healthier environment because of the use and development of innovative and sustainable technologies.” That will be true for years to come.

I hope that in 2011, the International Year of Chemistry, even more public attention can be focused on the vitality and value of green chemistry and its potential to benefit both present and future generations.

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