It's an age-old ritual for college science majors around the country: every year, a new wave of students takes a series of chemistry laboratory courses which, while interesting, often inspire much dread and stress. Students are expected to work with hazardous chemicals under cramped conditions to complete a set of preordained, stepwise experiments with speed and precision. Ken Doxsee and James E. Hutchison, both professors of chemistry at the University of Oregon, thought there ought to be a better way.
"We were meeting every evening and on Saturday mornings. It was just inappropriate for everyone involved," said Doxsee, referring to the rigorous lab schedule he and his students were subjected to just a few years ago. Hutchison and Doxsee started tinkering around with several new ideas, such as altering the class curriculum to emphasize less toxic, instrument-heavy experiments, to cut down on lab time and open up more space for students. Many of these schemes eventually bore fruit and have now provided the model for a new movement in chemistry: "green chemistry." Contrary to what its name may suggest, green chemistry doesn't necessarily involve environmental science experiments; instead, it simply refers to the process of doing science with an environmental ethic.
"We look at a chemical reaction or a chemical process. We look at everything that goes into it, whether it's a starting material or a reagent or a solvent or materials to run the reaction in, and we look at everything that comes out, which is what you want, and any byproduct, and consider each of those things as something where you ought to think about health and safety and the environment. If you're making a byproduct, do you have to? If you're using a solvent, do you have to? If you start with two reactants, do you incorporate both of them in your product or does 50 percent of one of them get thrown away as waste? If you have to start with a material, does it require you to isolate it from petroleum, or can you get it from a renewable source?" says Doxsee.
"Practical needs can bring about changes," says Doxsee. "I would like to believe that the whole world is being thoughtful about the future. I think a lot of interest may come from the practical realization of what green chemistry can offer." Though still a nascent field (it's only briefly mentioned in most chemistry textbooks as an aside), green chemistry has already found several applications in the realms of industry and education.
Scientists see it as an inevitability that as the public's attention continues to fixate on the threats posed by global warming, an increasing focus will be placed on ways to minimize greenhouse gas emissions, even at the level of chemistry laboratories in colleges and research facilities. In addition, cost- and safety-conscious companies will see an opportunity in shifting production towards less hazardous, less tightly regulated materials that require less expensive disposal procedures.
The need to conserve materials and shift to more sustainable, low energy technologies has already sparked a lot of innovation in college laboratories. In one instance, Thomas Goodwin, a professor of chemistry at Hendrix College, and a student circumvent the use of toluene, a petrochemical solvent, for an experiment by running it without it. Surprisingly, it still worked. Such experimentation is really at the base of what it means to do chemistry: a clear understanding of the underlying concepts and grasp of different chemicals' properties should be all a student needs to complete a reaction, not a series of minute detailed steps.
Goodwin now commonly encourages his students to think about the environmental consequences of their experiments with questions that ask, "what was green about the procedure, what was not green about the procedure and how could I improve it?" The ramifications of inspiring this type of engaging, environmentally responsible debate on a national level would be huge: it would help produce a new breed of eco-conscious scientists (and not only chemists) more willing to experiment with new ideas and more likely to question the status quo.
So what's the ultimate goal of green chemistry: its "hope," if you will? As Hendrix's Liz Gron, an associate professor of chemistry, put it, it "is that someday we'll stop talking about it. That everyone will do it, that part of being an ethical chemist is that you consider the environmental consequences of your work."
See also: ::Green Your Beaker: Tel Aviv University Hosts International Conference on Green Chemistry, ::Nobel Prize in (Green) Chemistry, ::School Goes Over the Top for Environmental Ed!, ::School District Finds Teamwork Leads to Energy Savings