John Warner: Building Innovation Through Green Chemistry

John Warner: Building Innovation Through Green Chemistry

Molecule model - CC license by Flickr user ARTS

Leading up to the GreenBiz Innovation Forum, editor Jonathan Bardelline spoke with John Warner, founder of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry and one of the fathers of green chemistry, about how green chemistry syncs up with innovation within companies.

Jonathan Bardelline: What is the relationship between green chemistry and innovation in businesses? Is green chemistry driving innovation, or are companies turning to and exploring green chemistry as an attempt to be innovative?

John Warner: I think it's a little bit of both. You know, 10 years ago, I would say that sustainability is a critical component and that technologies must not sacrifice performance and must not sacrifice cost while accomplishing goals of sustainability. I think the marketplace is slowly but positively evolving to now have a little tolerance for additional cost, which I think is quite a big change in society's perception. Now, it's not a huge tolerance, but there's a little bit of tolerance. And that, when we step back and think about it, indicates a lot.

I really believe that sustainability is the biggest impediment to success in the marketplace today. It's not technology. It's not business. It's actually issues around sustainability. And what I mean is the environmental regulations are a rapidly evolving landscape. We have new regulations, new legislation, bans of certain molecules, public opinion on certain sustainability issues.

John WarnerI really believe that now sustainability has become a critical component to success. And yet, if we look at the way that we educate people in science and technology, it's still absent from their education. In the United States and the world, for that matter, you get an undergraduate degree and a PhD in chemistry, you get a piece of paper, patted on the top of the head and told, "Go work in industry to invent new technologies," and you never have a course in toxicology and environmental impacts.

JB: With companies looking at green chemistry and it becoming a bigger issue, in what areas is it having the biggest impact right now?

JW: At this point, green chemistry is still nascent. It's only been around for 12 years, 13 years. It's not something that's mainstream, and so it's still evolving. But every major company that I know of has a program to address certain research development and manufacturing processes around green chemistry.

When you look at the cost of waste in a manufacturing process, when you factor in the transportation, storage issues, the regulatory issues, the training and safety issues, the potential liability, there's a hidden but massive and increasing cost for doing things in a non-sustainable way.

And so companies get that, and they want to have technologies that are more competitive, and they're realizing that sustainability, through green chemistry, is not a set of handcuffs. It's not an added cost. It's actually an economic benefit. It reduces cost. The problem is it's very unlikely that the people working in these companies, the scientists and the technologists, have any training or ability to deliver green chemistry technology. So the desire is there. The ability isn't.

JB: What are some of the other barriers that companies and the larger world of green chemistry are facing?

JW: The biggest issue is perception. It's a very strained reality that we face, that change is a difficult thing to wrap our heads around. Historically, 10 or 15 years ago, I think it was a valid perception that green technologies were expensive and inferior. That's no longer the case. I think that the science has evolved, but there are people still living in the past. And immediately, when they hear green, they think more expensive and less efficient. That perception is a hindrance.

Now, if they actually pay attention to what's going on in the world, they realize that that's no longer the case. There is the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge award program. It's the only award given by the president of the United States with the word chemistry in the title. It's been going on for 14 years. It was created in the Clinton administration, transferred to the Bush administration and onto the Obama administration. So it's non-partisan, looking at technologies that accomplish pollution prevention actively through reduced toxicities and environmental impact, but also have superior performance and costs.

Every year, five awards are given, and there's about 120 to 150 nominations. And there's a celebration of five technologies every year that demonstrate not only the technical achievements but the market achievements as well.

So the perception that it can't be done or it's difficult is erroneous. There is tangible evidence, but it's still just the tip of the iceberg because, again, the widespread technical competence of the United States still hasn't met that challenge. We don't have the skill set to truly do this. And so when we do finally figure that out and have a wholesale change in the way that we educate scientists, that is the key to innovation.

The important part to realize is that China has opened up something like 14 national research centers for green chemists. In the United States, if you want federal funding to do research, you better have nanotechnology somewhere in the title of your proposal. We have allocated over $10 billion over the last several years for nanotechnology. In China, if you want federal funding, you've got to have green chemistry in the title of your proposal.

In the country of India, the ministry of education is piloting a program where all chemists take a one-year course in green chemistry. Right now in the United States, you'd be hard-pressed to find any program that incorporates it.

JB: You touched a bit earlier on the somewhat hidden benefits for companies. What are some of the other factors that are driving companies to move towards greener chemistry in their products?

JW: Well, again, there's shareholder interest. I think that more and more shareholder activism is starting to play a role, albeit small, but it's a growing role. But there's also, again, the cost benefit. The way that I look at it is because the field of chemistry has been around in a modern interpretation for about 150 years, we have invented our pharmaceuticals, our cosmetics, our materials, in a mindset that has never really focused on sustainability, toxicity and environmental impact.

When one shifts to thinking in that way, it actually puts you in a new innovative space. In that new innovative space, that is the hallmark of creativity. What companies find is instead of it slowing them down, it accelerates time to market because they run into less hurdles in the regulatory process and in the manufacturing process. And it puts them in spaces that they weren't normally in because they've approached it from another angle.

JB: Looking at the big picture of trying to apply green chemistry on a massive scale to most industries where it could apply to, what needs to be done? You already touched on how there's the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge. Does the country or the world need more things like that, like the California Green Chemistry Initiative, is it more of a regulatory and law issue, or does it just have to be all of those things working together?

JW: We definitely need stronger chemical policy. We need to regulate chemicals. We need to regulate industries. Unequivocally, we can't slow down. We have to accelerate that process and do everything we can do to that.

Parallel to that - it's not the same, it's not combined with that, but separate from that - we have to look at this as supply and demand. Regulations could provide the demand. But if the science isn't creating the alternatives, then those regulations cannot succeed. But what we must also do simultaneously is provide the training to come up with the alternative. The best way for a ban or a regulatory function to work is to have a dozen alternatives that are successful in the marketplace that are safer.

Chemicals policy creates the demand. Green chemistry is not chemical policy. Green chemistry is the supply side, the science of identifying those alternatives. And so hand in hand, those two efforts accomplish the goals of more sustainable futures. But they're not the same.

It's really important to see it as a science and a technology. And to change the world, what we really need at the end of the day, is to see this as a moral and ethical imperative that anyone at the university that is getting a degree to go to work in industry to invent future molecules must be given the training to understand toxicity and environmental impact.

When you step back and think of it, it's horrifying. My father was an electrician. He could not come to your house and change a light bulb without a document stating how he can do that safely. A chemist has no such process. They receive their degree. They can assemble atoms in unique geometries that have never existed in the world and potentially make the most potent carcinogen, the most potent neurotoxin in history, and there's no requirements for them to anticipate that. There's no requirements for them to have any training to know what makes a molecule happen.

JB: Going back to what you mentioned about green chemistry running parallel with increased regulations, what are your thoughts on what's happening with bisphenol A?

JW: If we think of things like bisphenol A and other potentially hazardous materials, I have never in my life - I have been a chemist for nearly three decades - I have never met somebody who says that they work in industry and they say, "You know, I know this molecule is toxic, but what the heck, we're going to sell it anyway."

I've never met that person. What I have met is, "I don't know that this really is toxic. I'm not convinced by the data that something is toxic." And that becomes the biggest problem. You've got a bunch of people who say that bisphenol A is hazardous, and you have a bunch of people who say bisphenol A is safe. That controversy will perpetuate that dialogue, will perpetuate that discussion.

The way to exit that discussion is to have 10 alternatives that are cost-effective and superior in performance so that it becomes a moot point, because the alternatives just will be more successful in the marketplace. It's not suggesting that we don't continue with the toxicological analysis. But we've got to realize that the more efficient way to rid society of potentially hazardous materials is to promote the invention of alternatives.

The mistake people make is to think that alternatives already exist. In my estimation, over 65 or 70 percent of the problems haven't had solutions invented yet. It's not a sourcing issue. It's not just picking a better molecule to buy. They have to be invented.

Once you realize that - this is all about innovation and invention - then all of a sudden protecting human health and environment is intimately linked with economic development, workforce development, jobs creation because now if we have a workforce that's capable of inventing those alternatives, we're talking about bringing manufacturing jobs to a region, growing an economy.

Molecule model - CC license by Flickr user ARTS