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A Defining Moment

Chemists acknowledge the need to quicken the pace of implementing sustainable technologies

by Stephen K. Ritter
August 29, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 35


The chemical enterprise has had its share of defining moments when change was necessary. In those times, the chemical industry, often not by choice, reacted and overcame its challenges to move on successfully. Chemistry now faces yet another challenge, perhaps its most difficult one so far, to broadly adapt new technologies to help achieve what many stakeholders would consider the overdue goal of global sustainable development.

The march toward this goal for chemists and chemical engineers arguably began when Rachel Carson took a "sky-is-falling" approach in her book "Silent Spring," published in 1962. Carson wrote "Silent Spring" as a warning that the long-term use of synthetic pesticides could irreparably damage the environment. The book alarmed readers and the chemical industry. While a "silent spring" as Carson envisioned it did not fully materialize, she increased awareness that nature is vulnerable to human activity--that is, technological progress.

Ensuing laws to regulate chemicals and the growth of environmental activism helped remove some of the most toxic chemicals from use and improve the environment, and they did so without wrecking the economy or the chemical industry. The primary approach taken was to treat chemical waste before it was discharged to the environment--the end-of-the-pipe solution. But this approach was deemed insufficient.

Still needed was the creation of innovative technologies that would eliminate waste and prevent pollution in the first place. This shift in thinking emerged in the 1980s in concert with new ideas about moderating our consumption of energy and natural resources to achieve global sustainability. It was yet another defining moment for chemistry.

In response, the U.S. moved forward with new laws, in particular the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990. To carry out the requirements of the act, the Environmental Protection Agency created its Green Chemistry Program as an effort to educate chemists about greener technologies and to encourage chemical companies to develop "environmentally benign products and processes." The program is a formal recognition that laws and regulations alone can't solve some of our toughest environmental problems.

The chemical industry reacted. Recently, the American Chemistry Council released data showing that U.S. chemical production facility releases to the environment from 1988 through 2003 declined 75%, even as chemical production increased 29% during the same period. The European chemical industry has made similar progress. Green chemistry technologies are preventing the use or generation of more than 3 billion lb of hazardous materials or waste per year, according to EPA.

Separately, chemical companies are now creating new executive-level positions to oversee green and sustainable chemistry and are setting environmental and safety targets. DuPont, for example, has goals by 2010 to derive 25% of its revenue from nondepletable resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 65% relative to 1990 levels, and hold energy usage steady at 1990 levels.

Changing business strategies and redesigning manufacturing processes allow most of the goals that companies are setting to be reached with little cost. But key to these changes is the acknowledgement that environmental stewardship is an industry responsibility. It's no longer a "public relations stunt," as some environmental advocacy groups would say, because chemical companies are saving money and improving their competitive advantage in the process.

Once again, stakeholders are deeming these actions not enough to achieve global sustainability.

A slew of small conferences and workshops this year have been organized by and for chemists and chemical engineers to talk more about green chemistry and sustainability and assess the current situation. What is emerging from the open discussions in these forums is that green chemistry is an ideological and increasingly practical success. But stopping now to enjoy this success presents the danger of losing momentum to finish the job.

The warning now is that, while it's obvious society can't live without the chemical industry, the global environment can't survive continued unsustainable consumption of natural resources and release of millions of pounds of toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases each year.

Consensus continues to grow that the chemical industry can't survive as it currently exists, that it's time to quicken the pace of implementing fundamentally new technologies to reach global sustainability. It seems that another defining moment has come.

But there's still a Grand Canyon to cross to reach the end goal. This effort would require a melding of nanoscience, industrial biotechnology, and traditional chemistry and chemical engineering. The outcome would be a slimmer, more efficient chemical enterprise but one that remains economically viable.

It would include biorefineries that convert plant oils and sugars into commodity chemicals, not just motor fuels. It would include more fermentation processes, continuous microreactors for greater process intensification, and greener solvents and processes to minimize or eliminate separation and purification steps in chemical and pharmaceutical production.

These and other new technologies are available now, as attendees of the recent meetings point out. The next step is for the chemistry industry to "bite the bullet" and broadly implement these technologies, despite concerns about short-term finances.

Future success will require the collective action of chemists and chemical engineers, from the lab bench to the boardroom, who have the kind of attitude displayed recently by one EPA staff member: "We believe our mission is to save the world."



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