We must teach students how to avoid environmental impact rather than accept itas an inherent part of chemistry, argues John Warner
Where do you stand on the role of academia in training the next generation of chemists: should we favour ‘applied chemistry’ or ‘science for the sake of science’? Both sides have valid points; public funding should not be subsidising private industry, but students should receive practical training to help them get jobs after graduation. Yet while this debate will rage for a long time to come, one aspect requires action now: green chemistry. Navigating the complex issues around toxicity and waste can be a significant impediment to commercial success of any new technology, and we need to integrate a mechanistic understanding of hazard in to the chemistry curriculum. It is the missing element in how we train chemists.
A matter of scale
Anyone with industrial experience has probably heard the same lament, repeated with subtle variations. A brilliant fresh graduate from a university begins their career in an industrial position. They create some wonderful new material or process that meets some need of the business. The company becomes quite excited and resources are applied to further develop the science. Then someone from manufacturing steps in and all hell breaks loose. It is discovered that solvents are being employed that cannot be used in manufacturing. Reagents and conditions are being used that cannot be scaled up. Fingers point in various directions and the company must hope to invent the technology again, this time remaining consistent with real world practices.
Understandably, the waste of time and dashed expectations from the project can result in frustration and create a tangible rift between teams. The discoverers are disappointed that their inventions are not being commercialised and question the abilities of the manufacturers. Meanwhile, the manufacturers are disappointed that they are not receiving technologies that can be commercialised · and question the abilities of the discoverers.
Back to school
Many of the reasons we often cannot scale up laboratory chemistry relate to issues around human health and the environment. There are regulations that require high compliance, toxic substances that require special handling and hazardous waste streams that require high disposal costs. Sadly, universities rarely discuss these issues with students. Typically, the focus of the chemistry curriculum is on instructing students what to do after waste or a hazard emerges, such as the importance of wearing proper personal protective equipment, disposing of chemicals appropriately or monitoring compliance. Conversely, we often give very little attention to strategies and tactics at the molecular level to avoid generating hazardous material in the first place. It is astonishing (almost frightening) that the next generation of chemists · the only people with the skills to create new forms of matter · are unlikely to have even a basic ability to predict the possible negative impacts of the molecules they make.
This is not some epic battle of good and evil at work. Chemists and material scientists are brilliant, ethical and highly caring people. However, chemistry has evolved around the assumption that there must be elements of toxicity and hazards associated with any process · that these concerns are just part of being a chemist. We wear gloves to protect our skin, masks to protect our lungs and goggles to protect our eyes. We install scrubbers and filters in smokestacks to protect the air, the land and the sea. By accepting these exposure control technologies, we have inadvertently left our very skills as chemists out of the picture. Instead of accepting that a red dye causes cancer, or that some plasticisers might cause birth defects, we should identify the mechanism of harm and develop red dye molecules or new plasticisers that do not.
Of course, this is not as easy as it sounds. Although the fields of mechanistic toxicology and environmental health sciences are immense, and our knowledge base is growing constantly, it is not going to be simple to create a conduit to those colleagues working in molecular design labs. Yet the stakes are too high for this not to happen. Perhaps the best approach we could take is the green chemistry commitment (www.greenchemistrycommitment.org), operated by Beyond Benign, a non-profit organisation I co-founded. This program asks chemistry departments to help create and share best practices with other universities as they develop curricula and programs to bridge this gap.
There is obviously a moral and ethical component to teaching green chemistry. It is also pragmatic, cost effective and likely to shorten the time it takes innovations to reach the market. Some may argue the chemistry curriculum is already bursting with content and there is no room for new material. We must ask ourselves, what could possibly be more important?
John Warner is president and chief technology officer at the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, Wilmington, US