Universities commit to graduate majors in green chemistry

Much is being made of the shortage of skilled people to fill positions in science, math and engineering, and 13 colleges are coming together to make sure some of those skills are green. 

In an effort to transform chemistry education in the U.S., they have signed a "Green Chemistry Commitment," promising to graduate chemistry majors proficient in the theory and practice of developing environmentally responsible chemicals. 

The University of California-Berkeley, University of Minnesota and Northeastern University are among those that signed on, saying that an emphasis on green chemistry gives chemical companies a competitive advantage. 

"Supporting green chemistry education gives chemical companies a competitive advantage by providing a quicker time to market by reducing the environmental impact of manufacturing; reducing worker injury by minimizing exposure to toxic chemicals, processes and waste; and increasing efficiency and productivity of new employees who are better prepared after graduating from academic programs," says a representative of organizer Beyond Benign.

By placing more focus on environmental impacts at the earliest stage of innovation and invention, hazardous materials are removed from processes, all hazard-related costs are removed as well, significantly reducing hazardous materials handling, transportation, disposal and compliance concerns. Environmentally benign technologies have been proven to be economically superior and function as well as or better than more toxic traditional options, Beyond Benign says.

"When we modify our teaching labs by substituting drugstore-variety hydrogen peroxide and other greatly-reduced-toxicity chemicals instead of hazardous solvents and suspected cancer-causing agents, we show the principles of green chemistry in action," says Professor Irv Levy, chemistry department chair at Gordon College. "Students learn the same concepts and principles of chemistry they need, but they also learn how to achieve results in a way that's safer for them, the community and the environment. It's just the right thing to do."

The other schools that have signed on are: Bridgewater State University, Gordon College, Grand Valley State University, Kingsborough Community College, Michigan Technological University, Simmons College, South Dakota State University, St. Catherine University, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and Washington College. 

"The goal of green chemistry is for the term to disappear and it simply becomes how we practice chemistry," says John Warner, a founder of the field of green chemistry and president of Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry and Beyond Benign. "One day, we'll be able to clean up a tanker's chemical spill with water and a broom. It might take decades to get there, but that is what green chemistry will achieve."

The green chemistry industry, which is working to replace petroleum-based and toxic chemicals with safe, renewable bio-based products and materials, is expected to grow to $100 billion by 2020, up from less than $3 billion in 2011, according to Navigant Research (formerly Pike). That's a drop in the bucket in the $4 trillion global chemical industry, but greener chemicals will save the chemical industry more than $65.5 billion by 2020, Navigant says.

Three major themes are driving green chemistry forward:

• Waste minimization in the chemical production process

• Replacement of existing products with less toxic alternatives

• A shift to renewable (non-petroleum) feedstocks

Green chemical companies are currently among the biggest recipients of cleantech venture capital and a slew of them have gone public in the past couple of years. Each year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announces the Presidential Green Chemistry Awards.

Verdezyne has a pilot plant to make "green" nylon, used for engineered plastics, carpets, clothing and other textiles, and Agilix is turning non-recyclable plastics into oil that can be converted to crude in refineries, for example. 

This article is reprinted with permission from SustainableBusiness.com.
 
Image credit: CC license by U.S. Army RDECOM/Flickr