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Lesson One: The Essentials of Green Chemistry

Module Four: Green Chemistry Tackles the Grand Challenges


Video Lecture

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Learning Objectives

At the end of this module, students will be able to:

  • Define the challenges that chemists face in creating sustainable products
  • State the steps that green chemists should use in creating a sustainable society

The emergence of the field of green chemistry represents the first time in the 150 year history of the chemical enterprise that chemists around the world have begun focusing systematically on designing the hazards out of chemical products and processes.

We saw in Module One that civilization faces three grand technological challenges as we endeavor to create a sustainable future:

  • develop safe energy
  • develop renewable feedstocks
  • reduce and eliminate hazardous substances

In later lessons, we will more deeply explore these first two challenges, but for the majority of this course, our focus will be on reducing and eliminating hazardous substances in chemical products and processes.

Green Design

For green chemists to effectively design safer chemicals, they must first understand at a deep scientific level the hazards that chemicals present to human health and the environment. But this isn't easy. Here are some reasons why:

  • Chemists are not usually trained in toxicity and ecotoxicity. Therefore, they don't think of these issues when they develop new chemistry. Usually, their focus is on the technical performance of the product or process they are working on.
  • In the face of new findings, we need to refine our understanding of how hazardous chemicals and processes adversely affect living things, particularly their fragile and vitally important endocrine systems. This is crucial because endocrine disrupting chemicals present green chemistry with many of its most compelling reasons to reduce or eliminate hazardous substances.

The divide between present day technologies and the sustainable alternatives we must create presents enormous opportunities for green chemists, and the businesses that will grow from their work. Thousands of inventions will be made as green chemists develop a sustainable chemical technology base.

Six Steps

Green chemistry is both daunting and exciting at the same time. For our civilization to attain a truly sustainable technology base, green chemists will have to develop safer products and processes that are also economically realistic. If green chemistry's approaches are not profitable, businesses will not adopt them and they will not succeed in the marketplace. Here are six steps that should be taken if the field of green chemistry hopes to successfully reduce and eliminate hazards and, in time, create a truly sustainable society:

  1. Build alliances among green chemists, environmental health scientists and toxicologists. This will help ensure that the deepest available scientific understanding will be deployed to minimize hazards in new products and processes.
  2. Systematize and prioritize hazardous substances that need to be reduced or eliminated. This will help green chemists tackle the right problems in the right order.
  3. Catalog the distribution of hazardous substances in the products we manufacture and distribute. This will help elucidate exposures and enable a more effective prioritization of green chemistry problems.
  4. Develop and agree on assays that will be used to ensure that green alternatives do not carry the same hazards as the products or processes they are replacing.
  5. Be prepared to quickly redesign a "green" product or process if it proves to be associated with a new type of previously unknown or overlooked hazard.
  6. Where necessary, work to level playing fields for green products and processes by advocating for appropriate laws, tax incentives and regulations that make their development attractive.

Key Points

  • Chemists are traditionally not trained in toxicity and ecotoxicity, but this training is essential for the practice of effective green chemistry.
  • Even very low doses of hazardous chemicals can be extremely damaging to endocrine systems. This means we have to change the way we currently test chemicals to see how hazardous they are.
  • We must develop thoughtful and economically realistic methods for designing chemicals and processes that are hazard-free from their inception.
  • The field should work with other scientists and business to follow six strategic steps designed to lead to technologies that will help chemistry contribute to the emergence of a sustainable world.