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Catalyst For Sustainability

Green chemistry is touted as a model of industrial and pharmaceutical process efficiency

by Marc S. Reisch
September 27, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 39

Credit: Marc Reisch/C&EN
Credit: Marc Reisch/C&EN

At an event in Jersey City, N.J., earlier this month, two leaders in the field of green chemistry described successes in the design of more efficient chemical and pharmaceutical production processes.

Addressing about 50 people at a joint meeting of the American Chemical Society and the Société de Chimie Industrielle, a New York City-based industry education group, Robert Peoples, director of ACS’s Green Chemistry Institute, pointed out that although “we call nature’s ideal chemical reactor a plant,” chemical and other industrial plants often do not mimic natural processes. As they churn out their intended products, such facilities squander energy in often hazardous reactions that produce excessive waste.

As a consequence, added R. P. (Skip) Volante, vice president in charge of scaling up production of new active ingredients for Merck & Co., “the chemical and pharmaceutical industries are known for making more waste than product.” Merck’s embrace of green chemistry is intended to change that perception while also significantly reducing production costs, he said.

The role of green chemistry, Peoples explained, is to encourage “the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances.” In practice, that means designing safer chemical production processes with an eye toward preventing waste right from the start.

Green chemistry principles dictate using solvents, such as water, that are safer than those conventionally employed. They also encourage the use of renewable feedstocks and the design of chemicals and other products that degrade after use.

“Most polymers today are not compostable,” Peoples said. “But nature recycles.” The goal of green chemistry is to recover and reuse materials that would otherwise be dumped into landfills.

Credit: Merck
Credit: Merck

Columbia Forest Products is an example of one company that deployed a renewable resource in place of a hazardous and nonrenewable one, Peoples told the audience. The plywood maker replaced adhesives based on formaldehyde, a human carcinogen, with a soy-based adhesive known as PureBond. As a result, Peoples noted, the firm was able to cut hazardous air pollutants emitted at one of its plants by 90%.

The switch also gave Columbia a competitive advantage after the State of California banned the sale of certain formaldehyde-containing composites, Peoples said. The soy adhesive mimics the “glue” mussels secrete to attach themselves to rocks. The technology received a Presidential Green Chemistry Award in 2007 from the Environmental Protection Agency (C&EN, July 2, 2007, page 7).

For Volante, green chemistry means good process design. An example is Merck’s development of a new way to synthesize sitagliptin, the active ingredient in the type 2 diabetes drug Januvia. Nine months of work with enzyme specialist Codexis led to a new transaminase enzyme that converts a precursor ketone directly to the chiral amine Merck sought, Volante said.

The process, which won a 2010 Presidential Green Chemistry Award (C&EN, June 28, page 9), increased sitagliptin yield, cut back on production steps, and reduced water use and waste. The advance led “to a threefold increase in productivity and helped us avoid the cost of building a second factory to meet rising demand for Januvia,” Volante said.

Another step Merck has taken is to minimize the use of carrier solvent in high-performance liquid chromatography assays. In particular, the firm designed “microcolumns” for chromatography. “The technology employs supercritical fluids to produce new compounds for research,” Volante said. It also avoids the creation of thousands of gallons of solvent waste, he added.

Opposition to green chemistry stems from prejudice against change and concern about the cost of shifting from an established way of doing things, Volante and Peoples both suggested. But green chemistry opens opportunities, they said. Most of all, Peoples emphasized, “green chemistry makes business sense.”


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