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EPA Green Chemistry Challenge Awards announced

Winners recognized for developing greener products and processes

by Sam Lemonick
June 15, 2021


Scientists in a lab working.
Credit: Srikanth Pilla
Clemson University researchers work on a biobased polyurethane foam. The research won a 2021 EPA Green Chemistry Challenge Award.

Five winners of the 2021 US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Green Chemistry Challenge Awards were announced at a virtual ceremony today. One academic researcher and four companies were honored for work that includes making pharmaceutical molecules more efficiently and safely, finding greener alternatives to chemicals found in consumer products, and creating a material that can absorb nutrient pollution and release it elsewhere as fertilizer.

The EPA’s Michal Freedhoff, principal deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, presented the awards at the Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference, which is being held online for the second year in a row. “Talking about these success stories and finding ways to apply these practices in real-life situations is an investment in our future, ensuring all generations will have access to clean air, water, and land,” Freedhoff says in an email. Over the 25-year history of the awards, winners have collectively reduced the use of hazardous chemicals and solvents by hundreds of millions of pounds, and also reduced water use and air pollution, she says.

Two pharmaceutical companies received awards. Merck & Co., which also won a Green Chemistry Challenge award in 2020, redesigned its process for making gefapixant citrate, a drug to treat chronic coughs (Org. Process Res. Dev. 2020, DOI: 10.1021/acs.oprd.0c00248). Merck scientists reported reducing both the amount and cost of materials needed to make gefapixant citrate, while increasing the yield by 44%. The researchers also claimed the new flow process is safer than the initial proposed route to the molecule.

Bristol Myers Squibb scientists developed with collaborators a new family of phosphorus reagents that can be used to make oligonucleotides, short DNA or RNA sequences that are being explored as possible new drugs (ChemRxiv 2021, DOI: 10.26434/chemrxiv.14403488). ChemRxiv is a preprint server and the paper has not been peer reviewed. The company claims the new reagents are safer than traditional alternatives and facilitate reduced solvent and reagent use.

XploSafe, which makes products to detect hazardous chemicals and explosives, was recognized for creating an adsorbent material that can remove excess nitrogen and phosphorus from aquariums, pools, or ponds. The mixed metal oxide nanocomposite beads can also be used as a fertilizer, releasing adsorbed nitrogen and phosphorus into soil to help plants and food crops grow.

Automotive engineer Srikanth Pilla of Clemson University won for his group’s work making a fully recyclable, biobased polyurethane foam from paper mill waste (Green Chem. 2020, DOI: 10.1039/D0GC01659D). The foams can be used in cars and furniture or for insulation. Polyurethane foams are today commonly made using diisocyanate building blocks, which have been linked to asthma and other diseases among workers involved in polyurethane manufacturing.

Specialty chemicals maker Colonial Chemical Inc. was awarded for developing biobased, biodegradable Suga®Boost surfactants. The products use functionalized alkyl polyglycosides, which can be derived from sugar. The company says the surfactants can be used in laundry detergents and surface cleaners, and work as well as or better than alkyl phenol ethoxylate surfactants, which use toxic and non-biodegradable chemicals.

“I hope the chemists who read about the winners today are inspired to look more deeply into green chemistry and think about applying its principles to their work,” Freedhoff said.

The EPA Green Chemistry Challenge Awards recognize research that applies green principles—like reducing waste and making safer products—in designing, manufacturing, and using chemicals. The awards are sponsored by the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, along with the Green Chemistry Institute of the American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN.


This story was updated on June 16, 2021, to clarify that Colonial Chemical Inc. is a specialty chemicals maker, not a commodity and specialty chemicals maker.


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