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British program aims to embed sustainability in thinking and practice of chemical sciences

April 5, 2004 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 82, ISSUE 14

Jeremy Tomkinson (left), CEO of the York-based National Non-Food Crops Centre, discusses sustainable chemical technology with John Pierce (center), director of biochemical sciences and engineering at DuPont Central R&D, Wilmington, Del.; and Cliff Burton, general manager of Viridian Envirosolutions, Whitstable, England.
Jeremy Tomkinson (left), CEO of the York-based National Non-Food Crops Centre, discusses sustainable chemical technology with John Pierce (center), director of biochemical sciences and engineering at DuPont Central R&D, Wilmington, Del.; and Cliff Burton, general manager of Viridian Envirosolutions, Whitstable, England.

Thinking "green" should be integral to the teaching, research, and practice of chemistry in academia and industry, according to a report published by the London-based Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC).

The report, "Benign & Sustainable Chemical Technologies," is one of the outcomes of a "wake-up call" for British chemistry delivered last year by an international review panel of chemists headed by Harvard University chemistry professor George M. Whitesides (C&EN, Feb. 24, 2003, page 36).

"The 'Whitesides report' made particular note of the current state of U.K. green and sustainable chemistry research, stressing the importance of developing these activities further, in particular beyond industrial initiatives toward truly innovative research," RSC Project Manager Alejandra Palermo notes.

In light of the Whitesides report, RSC, which is the professional body for chemists in the U.K., identified several projects, including one on benign and sustainable chemical technologies, to carry forward the major scientific recommendations.

RSC, Palermo says, is committed to developing and incorporating benign chemical technological thinking into education at all levels and to inculcating the "greening" of chemistry wherever the profession is practiced.

She explains that green chemistry involves promoting the design of environmentally benign processes that minimize or eliminate the use of toxic substances--such as feedstocks, reagents, and solvents--and maximize overall efficiency through the reduction of unwanted by-products, especially toxic materials. Green chemistry, she adds, embraces all types of chemical processing-- including synthesis, catalysis, and separations--that reduce negative impacts on human health and the environment.

To help raise the research profile of benign and sustainable chemical technologies, RSC organized a research workshop on the topic in York, England, last October. It was chaired by Colin Webb, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology.

THE SOCIETY INVITED 31 chemists, biochemists, biologists, and engineers to discuss such green topics as raw materials, agriculture, and chemistry; new chemical routes; catalysis, biocatalysis, and materials; new processes and process strategies; and environmental biotechnology.

"The workshop was carried out in an excellent spirit of cooperation--heartening to see among U.K. academics and particularly between chemists and chemical engineers," Webb observes.

The report on the York workshop, prepared by Palermo and Webb, describes its principal findings and recommendations. It suggests that more multidisciplinary effort should be focused on benign and sustainable chemistry. There is especially a need for chemical engineers and chemists to work more closely together from the earliest stages of a project. The report also points to the need to attract newcomers to the field by promoting increased awareness of sustainability within the research community as a whole.

"One of the dangers of explicitly recognizing issues such as sustainable processing is that they acquire labels such as green chemistry, which then become seen as specialisms practiced by specialists, or worse still, merely studied by specialists," Webb says. "Rather than being something that somebody else does, we should all think in terms of benign and sustainable technologies. What we need to do is ensure that the concepts are so fundamental to our way of thinking that consideration of sustainability issues becomes as automatic as putting on your seat belt when you get into a car."

Out of 31 workshop participants, only six were from industry, notes David C. Bott, who is a director of group technology with Imperial Chemical Industries, in England.

"The industrialists were the 'usual suspects'--those with a proven commitment to the field--as were most of the academics," Bott remarks. "Green chemical technologies are only of value when applied, but the difficulty in engaging industrialists in the debate will prolong the induction period of this important area of activity.


"At some point in the future, all chemistry will be green," he continues. "We only need to differentiate it at this point to make a point about the criteria on which success can be judged. That requires a set of metrics that can be applied at the early stages in the development of a new chemical technology. We can then begin to form an opinion of its potential environmental impact at all stages in the supply chain" of which it forms a part.

Bott suggests that there is no magic bullet or wand that can be used to promote green chemistry and its applications. "The next phase is a long, hard slog to get people to see both the consequences of not understanding and applying the principles of green chemistry, and the upside of lower energy and cleanup costs that can be achieved by incorporating green chemical technologies into their future plans," he says.

ICI's Bott is also chair of the Research, Development & Technology Transfer Committee of the Crystal Faraday Partnership. The U.K. government-funded partnership was established three years ago to further the adoption of green chemical technologies by the U.K. chemical industry. It is backed by RSC, as well as the U.K.'s Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) and Chemical Industries Association (CIA).

"It is the outreach parts of the recommendations of the York workshop report that appeal to me," Bott says. "Unless people can be shown a value, they will not choose the green path. That the Crystal Faraday Partnership, RSC, IChemE, and CIA are already engaged in these sorts of meetings, along with many who are 'selling' their services, means that what we need is a joined-up strategy between all the parties concerned, and not the piecemeal approach of the past."

The report emphasizes that research councils, such as the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), must continue to play a key role in promoting green chemistry. EPSRC is one of seven British research councils that provide government funds for research projects in universities and colleges in Britain.

"Together with the Crystal Faraday Partnership, EPSRC is actively seeking to develop a research portfolio of highly speculative research leading to greener chemistry," notes EPSRC in a message appended to the report.

In 2002, EPSRC funded 12 green chemistry projects with a total value of around $3.6 million. These included research into atomistic simulations of processes leading to greener chemistry, the development of greener catalysts, catalytic oxidation in supercritical CO2, and the development of new microreactor-based electrochemical methodology.

In another message, the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) points out that it funds applied biological research in environmental biotechnology and biocatalysis. Projects include harnessing biological systems for environmental remediation and for clean technology processes that eliminate pollution at the source.

Caution is necessary when funding green chemistry research, according to workshop participant Neil B. McKeown, a professor of chemistry at Cardiff University, in Wales. "Discussion at the workshop seemed to suggest that academic chemists are the whole answer to the problem posed by environmental issues," he observes. "Clearly, they have an important role to play, but I'm worried that this initiative will divert sparse funds from the research councils whose primary role must remain the funding of the best of U.K. science.


"Should some of the best science involve an environmental theme, then all to the good. But when funds are desperately short, mediocre research should not be funded at the expense of excellent science because of a self-serving lobby group," McKeown says.

Organic chemistry should be one of the specific targets for greening, the York report suggests. "Most industrial processes consist of organic chemical reactions, but most organic chemists do not automatically think 'green,' " the report notes.

McKeown, who carries out research at the interface between organic synthesis and materials chemistry, remarks that most organic chemists in the U.K. are driven simply by the desire to be great practitioners of organic chemistry. "Only a few use their synthetic skills in other arenas--for example, in supramolecular chemistry, materials science, or green chemistry," he says. "A reeducation of organic chemists to tackle relevant problems is attractive but probably would have to be encouraged through directed funding. This, once again, raises the question of how funds for research should be allocated."

An integrated view of chemical processes is needed when considering their greenness, according to workshop participant Andrew G. Livingston, who is managing director of Membrane Extraction Technology, an Imperial College London spin-off company (see page 22), and professor of chemical engineering at the college. He points out that research has shown that the mass intensity of the overall process, rather than atom economy, might be a better indicator of the environmental impact of a fine chemicals process [Green Chem., 3, 1 (2001)]. Mass intensity is defined as the total mass of reagents--that is, reactants, solvents, and any catalyst--divided by the mass of product, whereas atom economy takes into account only the reactants.

"The U.K. Crystal Faraday Partnership has also found that in the areas of catalysis and reactions, academic research often outstrips industrial demand, while in the areas of process simplification and new separations, the demand for new technologies from industry outstrips academic research output," he adds. "The message is: Manage the whole process, not only the synthesis, to improve environmental performance. Green chemical technology is ultimately more important than green chemistry alone."

IN ITS CONCLUDING section, titled "The Way Forward," the report notes that, to remain competitive, the U.K. needs to advance the causes of green chemistry and sustainability within both academia and industry. Targeted funding and strongly improved cooperation between industry and academia should be seen as strategic imperatives for the country, it suggests.

"The use of new solvents, catalysts, materials, processes, and biotechnologies will surely benefit both the environment and the national economy in the short term," the report adds.

But it warns that difficult choices could be called for. "Selecting products and processes that maximize long-term environmental benefits may not necessarily enhance short-term profitability, and it is here where the responsibility for the environment must be shared by all of us," the report says.

The research workshop in York was the first of a series of events initiated by RSC as part of its response to the recommendations of the Whitesides report.

"In my view, the most important conclusion to emerge from the workshop was that there is insufficient contact between U.K. chemists and chemical engineers--an endorsement of the international review panel's opinion," Palermo concludes. "The York group thought that focused workshops and summer schools could improve the level of creative interaction between these two disciplines. RSC is now discussing plans for such activities with EPSRC and also intends to talk with IChemE about the project."

RSC also has recently established an Environment, Sustainability & Energy Forum to provide a platform to raise the profile of these subjects within the society and the wider community. In addition, the forum will strategically address issues that span the interests of several RSC groups that are already active in these areas.



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