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Introduction to Green Chemistry

Course Overview

Learning Green beaker and test tubesOver the past 150 years the field of chemistry has fostered almost no formal training in toxicity or ecotoxicity. We continue to train chemists  to create new products and processes, but not educate them to be aware of the need to protect themselves, other people or the ecosphere from the results of their hard work.

Green chemistry offers an alternative. The field was defined by Paul Anastas in the 1990s as "the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous compounds."

Stated broadly, this course helps students understand the notion of sustainability and how it applies to chemistry. It also explores the history of chemistry, outlines critical need for green chemistry, and the principles that guide its practice as an emerging and important field of science.


This free online resource from the Institute of Green Science at Carnegie Mellon University is an introductory course in green chemistry suitable for high school students and advanced lower levels. To explore selected lessons, click on the links below. To read a more detailed summary of the course and what it offers, explore the syllabus by clicking on that icon to the left. The links along the left side of this page will always be available while you are taking the course and will provide you with a course-level view of lectures, quizzes and other content. For a step-by-step guide to navigating the course, please download this help file.


Lesson One: The Essentials of Green Chemistry

In this lesson, the definition of green chemistry is presented. Barriers and pathways forward are considered. The grand technological challenges of sustainability and green chemistry's critical role for developing the technical dimension of a sustainable civilization are discussed. The need for sustainability ethics to be taught in chemistry and across disciplines is introduced.

Lesson Two: The Definition of Green Chemistry

Definitions are important because they clarify meaning and provide insight into the essentials of the topics they define.  In this lesson, we'll take a broad look at Paul Anastas' classic definition of green chemistry, and explore how it requires changing the way chemists are trained, and reinventing our most fundamental approaches to chemistry of all kinds.

Lesson Three: The Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry and Their Application

This lesson explores how to apply the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry in the real world. It's four modules investigate the importance of the principles, how they can help identify problems with the current ways we practice chemistry and how these can be used to solve those problems. The final module provides pragmatic examples of products and processes that have emerged from the field and been used in the real world.

Lesson Four: Bookcase of Green Chemistry Problems, Part One

The challenges that a green chemist faces are complex and broad. They touch a wide variety of fields and enterprises. Generally, two types of challenges lie before us: those that fit into our current economic paradigm, are shorter term, and are already being tackled. And those that are not being tackled and fall outside current business models, but still remain immensely important. Imagine each of the problems we face as a book on a bookshelf. In this lesson we discuss and explore the first three shelves of this "bookcase of challenges"—those that are shorter term and already being resolved. These include energy, efficiency and natural resources, or what chemists call feedstocks.

Lesson Five: Bookcase of Green Chemistry Problems, Part Two

In this lesson we explore the top three shelves of the "bookcase of green chemistry problems." These include discussions of toxic elements, persistent and environmentally mobile chemical compounds and endocrine disruption. Each represents longer term, highly dangerous and deeply intractable challenges to the fields of green science.

Lesson Six: Adverse Effects of Chemicals on Health and the Environment

This lesson reviews the origins of the oil and chemical industries, two pillars of modern business and technology upon which our society rests. The lesson argues that we must challenge the current paradigms that support this structure, otherwise we risk undermining the civilization we have so far built. This lesson also introduces the concept of endocrine disruption.

Lesson Seven: The Obesogen Hypothesis

It is clear that there is an obesity epidemic in many Western countries.  Although overeating and under-activity are widely cited as the primary reasons for this problem, the issue is vastly more complex.  This three module lesson examines the ability of a specific class of endocrine disrupting chemicals to increase the growth and differentiation of fat cells, as well as how our increased exposure to these chemicals may be having an impact on the obesity epidemic.

Lesson Eight: Introduction to Sustainability Ethics

Traditionally we don't consider ethics and the practice of chemistry to run in the same circles, but this lesson argues that the two, especially in the modern world, cannot be separated. This means the chemical enterprise, and our civilization, must fundamentally re-examine their priorities, or risk collapsing in the future. This lesson explores some ways we can deal with these realities.

Lesson Nine: Deeper Insights Into Sustainability Ethics

The chemical enterprise is a powerful example of how the development of modern technologies require us to radically shift our traditional view of ethics. Hans Jonas' Imperative of Responsibility argues that we can no longer assume that if we cause no harm to ourselves that we spare harming others in the world at large, and others who will live in the future. Technologies, including chemical technologies, have become that powerful. This lesson draws heavily on Jonas' thinking to argue that the practice of a new kind of human ethics, and the practice of green chemistry are inseparable.