(good) Green chemistry will save the world

Last week the Sustainability Committee invited John Warner to speak to the Northeastern community about the “green chemistry movement,” which he helped create in the mid-nineties. I realized during his talk that despite spending five years in the chemical industry and another five studying with a professor who was personally interested in the area of green chemistry, I really had no idea what it actually is.

Chemistry in general has a bad rap, which is crazy because without it our universe would simply not exist. If you Google “chemical definition” the first (and only) full definition to appear is:

A compound or substance that has been purified or prepared, esp. artificially.

But that’s totally wrong…or at least incomplete. Here’s a better one from The Collins English Dictionary that I found by clicking the second or third search result:

Any substance used in or resulting from a reaction involving changes to atoms or molecules.

Do you see the difference? The first one says “esp. artificially” and talks about purification and preparation, which are things humans do to chemicals in the lab. The second focuses on the very fundamental basis of chemistry — reactions, atoms, molecules. They are all around and inside of us. The keyboard I’m pounding on to write this is made of some kind of plastic (a chemical). The water I’m drinking to keep myself from overheating about this debate is a chemical. The sticky notes covered in ink lettering and strewn around my desk contain a whole bunch of chemicals all in one little package. I’m chemicals — I’m sugar and water and ATP and DNA and proteins!

All of these molecules have to be synthesized, one way or another. In the body, our cellular machinery does a lot of it. In the lab it happens in beakers and reactors and flasks. But they are all chemicals, regardless. They all come from some kind of chemistry.

Okay fine, so where am I going with all this? Our world has a lot of problems, everybody knows it. I’d argue that pollution and consumption are among the worst of them. So, everyone runs around with their “Go Green” fabric shopping bags filled with BPA-free water bottles trying to make a difference. But how much of a difference are we actually making? John Warner believes we need to go back to the foundations:

Reactions. Atoms. Molecules.

Green chemistry, he said, isn’t about the debate over whether BPAs will kill us but rather training our academic and industrial chemists to think green from the beginning – to synthesize molecules that won’t be a problem in the first place.

Astonishingly, he told us that there is no chemistry graduate program in the country that requires a toxicology class. This means that the chemists who theorize and synthesize new chemicals for a living have no idea whether the things they are creating will be harmful to the body or the environment. On the other hand, India and China don’t let a single chemist graduate without these sort of classes.

Meanwhile, industry is chomping at the bit for chemists with toxicology and green chemistry know-how. In their absence, companies are offering their own post-academic training programs.

Warner suggests that if we know what we’re dealing with and where we want to go, we can start filling the green chemistry “toolbox” with options to synthesize a healthier world from the bottom up, instead of trying to reconfigure the current toolbox of standard chemistry options.

Another issue, which would be an entire blog post on its own, is education. The influx of students into PhD chemistry programs is steadily dropping in this country. We think chemistry is going to kill us all, so it makes sense that no one in their right mind would want to spend a lifetime in the lab surrounded by chemicals. But if we start thinking about it differently, start showing students that with chemistry they can make a real, meaningful impact on the world, they might start to get interested.