3Qs: Green chemistry

Graham Jones

In honor of Earth Day, we decided to take that opportunity to speak with chemistry and chemical biology chair Graham Jones about Northeastern’s role in the emerging field of green chemistry.


What is green chemistry?

Green chemistry is a term often used to describe chemical processes, procedures and products that are environmentally friendly and sustainable in nature. A green version of a chemical synthesis, for example, might use fewer solvents and less energy (for heating or cooling of a chemical reaction) than a conventional synthesis. The green process may also use reagents that are less toxic or reagents and catalysts that could be recycled easier. In terms of greener products themselves, a good example would be a biodegradable plastic that reduces environmental impact.

Why is green chemistry important?

It is important on many levels. Besides economic impact — the other type of ‘green’ — green synthesis methods typically have a beneficial impact on the environment. Such processes, for example, may limit exposure to pollutants, reduce waste and consume less energy. The economic cost of disposing of hazardous and toxic byproducts is increasing pressure on manufacturers, and tightened emission and pollution standards are requiring corporations to adopt greener production methods.

How does Northeastern’s chemistry department plan to get involved with this movement?

We are actively incorporating green methods into our research and educational mission. In our curriculum, we are developing new courses in the chemistry of renewable energy, green chemical processes and a general education course in chemistry and sustainability. We are also reviewing our laboratory curricula to adopt greener methods wherever possible.

In the research laboratories, we are actively developing new methods for green chemical synthesis, including the use of microwave reactors to minimize energy needs and use of microfluidic reactors to minimize solvent waste. Training the next generation of scientists in such methods is a university’s responsibility, and we are delighted to have forged a growing partnership with the Warner-Babcock Institute and Beyond Benign, two local companies that are pioneering research and education in green chemistry.