Imagining a Green Chemistry Moonshot

Cradle to Cradle

Imagining a Green Chemistry Moonshot

I had the good fortune recently to attend the Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference. In his keynote address, Paul Anastas, Assistant Administrator for the U.S. EPA's Office of Research and Development and co-author of The 12 Principles of Green Chemistry, called for a crash program in the development and deployment of green chemistry akin to JFK's May 1961 challenge to the nation to put a man on the moon by 1970 -- a "green chemistry moonshot" program, so to speak.

It's a wonderful and evocative way of expressing the daunting challenge of rethinking and remaking our industrial chemical enterprise. As Dr. Anastas observed, this is a tall order, but rising to meet challenges like this is what we do. He reminded us that the technology needed to safely land humans on the moon and return them to Earth was, quite literally, science fiction in 1961.

I love this moonshot idea, although the first obstacle is translating this grand, poetic rhetoric into a vision that resonates for people in general. The proverbial person on the street didn't need to understand the science or engineering required to send someone to the moon in order to imagine what success looked like, and therefore to support it.

But I'm not sure it's quite so clear to most people what a green chemistry renaissance would look like; it's more abstract than a rocket and someone in a space suit standing on the lunar surface.

Even relative to renewable energy, which allows people to picture wind turbines or solar panels on rooftops, green chemistry is somewhat elusive. I'd suggest this is akin to the perceived problem (among chemists, at any rate) that many non-scientists don't appreciate the degree to which life as we know it is chemistry: not just living organisms but the objects and products we create and with which we surround ourselves.

This is one reason the moonshot idea is so exciting and promising. How do we describe a green chemistry challenge in a way that is accessible and inspiring for the person on the street? I'd love to hear ideas about this and will be sharing some recent examples in the coming weeks.

This article originally appeared on the GreenBlue blog and is reprinted with permission.