Can chemistry ever really be called ‘green’?

Dr Zoe Schnepp

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I tried an experiment today. I typed the word ‘chemical’ into a Google image search. Alongside images of glassware filled with colourful fluid and The Chemical Brothers in concert I got lots of hazard warning signs (TOXIC, WARNING, HARMFUL, RADIOACTIVE) and people in protective suits. Sadly, the search also returned many images from the recent conflict in Syria. Chemicals seem to be synonymous with danger, harm and even death, so can chemistry ever really be called ‘green’? 

Many of the chemicals responsible for this negative image were the result of a lack of foresight. With the advent of world-changing technologies in the 20th Century, it was inconceivable to scientists and industries at the time that many of the products they were making might harm people or the earth on which we live. CFC refrigerants were lauded at the time of discovery for being a non-toxic and ‘inert’ alternative to the much more dangerous and commonly-used ammonia. It was decades later that the complex atmospheric interaction of CFCs with ozone was discovered. The insecticide DDT was also once a success story, being used for example to combat malaria. Likewise, Thalidomide was initially used effectively to control morning sickness in pregnant women. Obviously, the image of the chemical industry has not been helped by some cases of appalling cover-ups. But the point is that these chemicals, and many others, were never designed to do the harm that they did. They were created with the goal of improving our lives. The terrible effects on human health and the environment were unforeseen.

With cases like DDT in mind, chemists in the US in the 90s coined the term ‘Green Chemistry’ and wrote a set of twelve principles. This was not a new field of chemistry, but rather a philosophy, a set of values to be used by all chemists when designing a new molecule or process. The twelve principles include minimization of energy usage and waste but also the design of new molecules to be non-toxic. The idea is that sustainability should be considered from the very first stages of a new research process, rather than after a new molecule or material has already been created. Of course the same principles can be applied to existing processes and in fact there are many examples of industrial processes that have been made much cleaner and more energy efficient through the application of Green Chemistry. But the long term goal is that sustainability should be considered at the design stage.

So can chemistry ever really be green? Will we ever have a world where all industrial processes produce harmless waste or even no waste at all? Can we generate all of the chemicals that we use in our everyday lives (medicines, detergents, electronic materials, food ingredients to name just a few!) from entirely renewable resources? It’s certainly going to be a challenge and there are many sceptics. But there are also some remarkable and exciting Green Chemistry success stories, some of which I hope to talk about in this blog over the next week!

Dr Zoe Schnepp is a Birmingham Fellow in the School of Chemistry at the University of Birmingham.

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