The first Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference (GC&E) came into being 20 years ago, in 1997, as a collaboration between the American Chemical Society, the Environmental Protection Agency, and a number of other agencies and organizations. The conference, which was held at the National Academies, was the first of its kind to focus on the emerging approach of green chemistry, and it was open to a mixed audience made up of academic, industrial, and government representatives. ACS’s Committee on Environmental Improvement, led by the late Joseph Breen, as well as the Division of Environmental Chemistry and the Division of Industrial & Engineering Chemistry were integral leaders in convening this event. In subsequent years, the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute (GCI) took over the leadership of the conference, and working with a group of highly motivated volunteer program chairs each year, it has seen the conference flourish as the largest and longest-standing green chemistry conference in the world.
A lot has changed since those early days in green chemistry, and the conference is a reflection of this transformation. Although strong involvement and support from the government fueled earlier conferences, in recent years, industrial sponsorship and involvement has risen. Today, GC&E doubles as a hub of activity for the GCI Industrial Roundtables, which organize symposia, host an industry poster reception, and bring people together from around the world. The presence of chemical manufacturers, pharmaceutical scientists, formulators, biobased chemical companies, and oil and gas companies as well as retail brands is a boon for students and for the academic audience. The conference has always been about breaking down the silos between research and implementation and striking a balance between technical advancements and innovations in process and product design. Opportunities for networking, understanding industry career opportunities, and connecting with professors from graduate schools across the world—not to mention a full day of workshops for students—are attractive benefits for young chemists.
One of the plenary speakers in 1997, the first year of GC&E, was Paul Anderson, who was ACS president at the time. He identified the audience as “among the growing number of people who understand that chemists and engineers can have a significant impact on improving the environment by ‘reinventing’ how chemicals and materials are produced and used.” In many ways, the conference continues to serve a niche audience in the grand scheme of things. Yet, the people attending each year, representing an impressive list of organizations, universities, and companies, are the leaders among us whose application of green chemistry and engineering design principles in their work is transforming our science and our industry to be a true enabler of a more sustainable future.
GCI has developed a five-year plan to see the conference move from serving primarily as a convening mechanism in support of the community to also acting as a catalyst in driving key green chemistry concepts and ideas into the wider chemistry community. For example, symposia on green chemistry education at this year’s event and a colocated workshop will serve the effort among educators and stakeholder organizations to continue the development of an educational road map for green chemistry. More than just a selection of presentations, these types of symposia and workshops have specific objectives and outcomes to take the conversation forward.
The conference also continues to be a time to celebrate the achievements of industry, academic research, and small business innovations that incorporate the principles of green chemistry into chemical design, manufacture, and use through the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards. These awards, now in their 21st year, are presented by EPA in partnership with GCI and awarded in conjunction with the conference. ACS also recognizes excellence in student research through the Kenneth G. Hancock Memorial Award, as well as via the student poster competition.
Recognizing the challenging yet potentially fertile territory of green entrepreneurship, GC&E hosts a business plan competition to foster early-stage companies using green chemistry and engineering principles. Applicants have the opportunity to win a substantial cash prize but also receive training and feedback as well as the opportunity to pitch their ideas in front of a targeted audience at the conference.
This year is the first time GC&E will be hosted away from the Washington, D.C., metro area, and we are excited to be in Portland, Ore., a city passionately embracing the importance of the environment and its benefit to society and the economy. There has been a tremendous response from the green chemistry community to participate in the conference, and we hope that this milestone year will both celebrate the growth of green chemistry and set a course for the next 20 years. GCI is proud to host the conference each year and values the support and participation of so many people across the years.
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