Models for Scaling Up Green Chemistry

Models for Scaling Up Green Chemistry

[Editor's note: This is the final post in a four-part series offering a vision for green chemistry in the United States in 2030. Part 1 defined the vision, Part 2 provided a game plan and Part 3 looked at changes needed in regulatory policy. Today's piece looks at two landmark private sector initiatives and how a robust federal green chemistry initiative could help scale up these efforts, speeding realization of the 2030 vision.]

Part 1 of this series contrasted the decade-long $12 billion federal government investment in development of nanomaterials with Congress's repeated failure to enact a relatively miniscule Green Chemistry Research and Development Act authorizing expenditures of roughly $165 million over three years.

A sad irony of the massive federal investment in nanomaterials is the absence of meaningful funding for analysis of the hazards and risks of these new materials, although work at the University of Oregon specifically merges nanoscience and principles of green chemistry.

When questions were raised in a March 2010 AOL News investigative report, the government distributed defensive "talking points" to its outside advisors that resemble the posture that companies take in response to attacks on the safety of their products and chemicals.

New products developed with public and private sector funds are being introduced into the marketplace with inadequate characterization of risks, raising the potential both for increased hazard and public backlash against materials that promise considerable social benefit.

spiral shellThe principles of green chemistry and the related design process of biomimicry represent a fundamentally different and more socially, economically and environmentally desirable approach to designing materials -- based on the premise that creating materials to serve functional objectives should integrate hazard, waste, and energy considerations from the very beginning of the design of new molecular structures.

The concepts of green chemistry and biomimicry have evolved and grown in parallel, identified with and promoted by separate seminal thinkers, yet they're intertwined. They both require approaching design questions from a fundamentally new perspective of minimizing the footprint of new materials on the earth's systems.

spiral staircaseAs noted in Part 1, Paul Anastas and John Warner published a book elaborating the 12 principles of green chemistry in 1998.

In 1997, Janine Benyus published "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature." Benyus' critical point was that through extensive experimentation, nature likely has already addressed human design challenges in a highly functional way based on efficient use of economizing energy and materials:

"Life has been performing design experiments on Earth's R&D lab for 3.8 billion years. Whatever your company's design challenge, the odds are high that one or more of the world's 30 million creatures has not only faced the same challenge, but has evolved effective strategies to solve it."

About a decade after publishing the 12 principles, John Warner went on to found the Warner-Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, a commercial laboratory launched with venture capital whose goal is designing green chemicals.test tubes

The institute declares, "By reducing or eliminating hazardous substances at the design stage, Green Chemistry is changing the world's approach to making products while creating a competitive advantage for business." Its website lists the six industry sectors in which it works, including pharmaceuticals and personal care and cosmetics. The institute creates specialized courses for individual companies, including executive training and professional training both for scientists and engineers and non-scientists.

Warner also created the complementary nonprofit Beyond Benign Foundation, which specializes in green chemistry education -- curriculum development, outreach, education and training. The foundation focuses on both academic and professional level training to support a professional workforce that can advance green chemistry, and K-12 curriculum training to provide "integral knowledge for all future scientists and educated citizens."

Benyus went on to found the Biomimicry Guild, which provides commercial biomimicry design services to industry. The Biomimicry Guild responds to corporate design challenges by offering bio-inspired solutions and assistance in creating and implementing them. It also offers corporate workshops and expert referral services.

Benyus also created the nonprofit Biomimicry Institute, which conducts numerous multi-media educational initiatives and offers online information resources.

For example, the institute's "AskNature" website suggests, "Instead of using high pressure and temperatures to manufacture tough, lightweight building materials, an engineer can "ask" a toucan how it manages impact with its strong and light beak."toucan

Similar questions might be asked of spiders spinning strong yet thin and flexible webs, and marine animals creating strikingly hard protective shells and remarkable adhesives that allow them to cling to various surfaces even while being pounded by surf.

Warner's and Benyus's nonprofit organizations are but two of several developers of education and training materials.

spider webOthers include the American Chemical Society's Green Chemistry Institute, the University of California at Berkeley's green chemistry program, and academic centers of green chemistry excellence, such as those at Carnegie-Mellon University and the University of Oregon. The National Academy of Sciences has also published a workshop on green chemistry and education needs.

Warner and Benyus stand out because they are combining applied commercial work and complementary nonprofit initiatives to raise social awareness, provide the learning tools necessary to accomplish green chemistry, and create real green chemistry and biomimicry solutions. All these are essential to make progress towards the 2030 vision of green chemistry presented in Part 1 of this series.abalone shell

Green chemistry offers the promise of moving society beyond its 20th-century "brown" chemistry footings. This older chemistry yielded remarkably useful societal benefits, as captured in the chemical industry's marketing phrases "better living through chemistry" and "essential2."

flasksBut these panglossian, rosy scenario phrases ignore the ugly legacy and the social and economic costs of contaminated manufacturing sites and occupational and environmental health burdens. Better living is in fact best accomplished through greener chemistry inspired by nature's solutions.

Green chemistry is the chemistry needed for the 21st Century, offering competitive advantages in challenging global markets. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has stated this concisely:

"China's going to go green . . . once they produce those technologies . . . they'll come our way and clean our clock in the next great industry of the 21st century if we remain asleep at the switch. . . . Green China ultimately is going to be a bigger challenge to us than Red China."

{related_content}A robustly funded Green Chemistry and Biomimicry Research and Development Act, on the scale of national initiatives on nanomaterials and bio-based materials, is critical to helping U.S. industry stay competitive in the global marketplace for green chemistry and realize the 2030 vision for green chemistry.

Richard A. Liroff, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Investor Environmental Health Network (IEHN). IEHN is a collaboration of investment managers that advocates for safer corporate chemicals policies to grow long-term shareholder value and reduce financial and reputational risks to companies. The business case for corporate safer chemicals policies, a list of shareholder resolutions on safer chemicals policies, and a roster of participants can be found on the IEHN website,

The author is engaged with numerous organizations and processes discussed above; mention of commercial products and services should not be construed as endorsement. This article has benefited from comments provided by colleagues working on toxicity reduction. Portions are reprinted with permission from the author’s Green Chemistry article in Berkshire Publishing Group’s Encyclopedia of Sustainability.

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