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Chemical Reaction: Green Chemistry—Safer from the Start

By: Steve Herman
Posted: October 3, 2008, from the March 2006 issue of GCI Magazine.

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Warner tells a story that illustrates the current priorities of chemical education. To get his doctorate, he was locked in a room and required to translate a technical paper from German to English, and another paper from French to English. Never again in his long and illustrious career did his work require this ability. At the same time, he never was provided a course in toxicology or environmental safety. Safety simply was never a concern of chemical education. The green chemistry departments springing up in the. United States and globally fortunately are rectifying this situation.

Green chemistry got a massive boost with the passage of the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990. The Office of Pollution Prevention encouraged the discovery of new methods, and the improvement of existing chemical products and processes, to make them less hazardous to human health and the environment. In 1991, a program began to provide grants for research projects that included pollution prevention in the design and synthesis of chemicals.

For the principles of green chemistry (see sidebar on page xx) to have effect, they must take hold in schools, in industrial laboratories and in production processes. An example of industry action is provided by Engelhard Organic Pigments, with its Rightfit pigments. Red, orange and yellow pigments historically were created using toxic, heavy metals such as lead, chromium and cadmium. Engelhard developed azo pigments that contain calcium, strontium or barium. They have very low potential toxicity and are manufactured in aqueous medium, eliminating the polychlorinated intermediates and organic solvents associated with traditional materials.

Key Developments

Ryoji Noyori, the 2001 Nobel prize winner in chemistry, has identified three key developments in green chemistry: use of supercritical carbon dioxide as a green solvent, aqueous hydrogen peroxide for clean oxidations and the use of hydrogen in asymmetric synthesis. On October 5, 2005, France’s Yves Chauvin and Americans Robert H. Grubbs and Richard R. Schrock won the 2005 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work to reduce hazardous waste in forming new chemicals. The trio won the award for their development of the metathesis method in organic synthesis—which focuses on how chemical bonds are broken and made between carbon atoms, and which the Nobel Prize committee likened to a dance in which the couples change partners.

Of course safety and environmental concern is not new for the chemical industry. The American Chemical Council (ACC) started the Responsible Care program in 1988. It is intended to improve the environmental, health, safety and security performance of participating companies. Its latest initiative to burnish the image of chemistry is the “Essential2” campaign sponsored by the ACC. Supporting members include BASF, Dow Corning, 3M, Rohm & Haas, and W.R. Grace. The $35 million budget includes print, television, radio and a Web site. The “Chem Factor” shows the percent of ingredients in everyday items derived from innovations in chemistry. A typical ad shows a woman waking up to a scene where all the contents of her room disappear, showing life without chemistry.