Green Chemisty for the Layperson


What would you do without Ibuprofen? (If you would simply sip an organic ayurveda tea, please humor us and insert another chemical which you dearly rely upon.) This is the Treeugger dilemma in a nutshell: you want the product, you don't want the waste and pollution which often burden our enjoyment of these benefits of modern life. This is where "Green Chemistry" comes in. If you are lucky enough to live in Massachusetts, within bicycling distance of the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters, 6 Plum Island Turnpike (enter on Rolfe's Lane), you could join the Nov. 9 meeting of the Seacoast Energy and Environmental Design (SEED) Coalition for a talk to be given by Dr. John Warner, one of the founding fathers of Green Chemistry. If you can't make it in person, read on for a briefing and leave your questions: TreeHugger will try to add Dr. Warner to the list of famous green people interviewed for your reading pleasure. Our sources assure us that Dr. Warner can deliver the message of green chemistry at a level the interested layperson can understand.Ibuprofen, p-isobutylhydratropic acid to the chemist, is featured in the picture above this article because it is one of the success stories of Green Chemistry. Following principle number 2--Atom Economy--of the 12 principles of Green Chemistry, the manufacturing process for Ibuprofen was redesigned to reduce the relative mass of wasted starting materials from 60% to 33%. If you count the recycling of the single main waste product, a mere 1% of the building block atoms result as waste. The process also replaced a six-step by a three step process, certainly aiding energy efficiency (principle 6) and simplifying real-time analysis for pollution prevention (principle 11). If you really want to see this at the atomic level, check out the Ibuprofen Case Study (caution: significant interest in chemistry required!)

Behind the emphasis on Ibuprofen as a success story, Ibuprofen is also a case study for the complex questions that face chemists trying to design greener processes. The improved ibuprofen process eliminates an assisting chemical which was used up and landfilled continuously; it is replaced by a chemical which can be continuously recycled within the process. Sounds good. But the new chemical aid, hydrofluoric acid, is a difficult and potentially dangerous chemical to handle. A splash on the skin in an area as little as the size of your hand can lead to fatal effects. Nonetheless, this chemical is safely handled widely in industry: every computer, cell phone, and apparently even ibuprofen, relies on the unique properties of hydrofluoric acid in their manufacture.

And this gets to the heart of the real challenge for green chemists: when is a process really greener? Do the risks of a more hazardous chemical offset the benefits of a greener process or an eco-product? The conclusion from a chemist's or chemical engineer's point of view can also be found in the 12 principles: inherently safer chemistry comes in at number twelve. Sometimes, the overall benefit is optimized by safer process design rather than only by substituting safer chemicals.

The conclusion on the regulatory agenda is often at odds with the chemist's opinion: optimization of the entire process frequently suffers under an unremitting drive for the holy grail of substitution by safer chemicals. And replacement of existing chemicals with new chemicals can be an expensive process, subject to significant regulatory delays--as the people entrusted with the guardianship of the social and environmental welfare need data and time to ensure that the great new idea does not have as yet unnoticed drawbacks.

This is a conversation more interested laypeople need to understand, if the power of democracy is going to lead to a sustainable economy. Let's get things started in the comments here at TreeHugger. What would you ask Dr. Warner if you could be in Newburyport on Nov. 9?

Via Newburyport Town Online
The Seacoast Energy and Environmental Design Coalition helps area businesses grow revenue and embrace sustainability, attract new energy/environmental sustainable industries and facilitate high quality energy/environmental services for the community. For information, e-mail