Warner underscores that simply showing students and professional chemists examples of green chemistry products and asking them to learn the principles of green chemistry is not sufficient, however.
“It would be like showing examples of Russian poetry—an alliteration, an allusion, a time juxtaposition, all in Russian—to people who don’t speak Russian and then asking them to write a Russian poem,” he says. What’s needed is an understanding of what makes molecules behave—how their chemical composition and structure influences their biological and physical behavior. Creating a molecule to perform a certain task (the traditional goal of synthetic chemistry) without considering the full range of its potential ecological interactions falls short of green chemistry’s goals.
Creating a molecule to perform a certain task (the traditional goal of synthetic chemistry) without considering the full range of its potential ecological interactions falls short of green chemistry’s goals.
Marc Hillmyer and William Tollman are preparing chemistry students for careers in which green chemistry will be a given rather than a novelty. In 2010–11 the University of Minnesota faculty taught a three-credit course in green chemistry for chemistry majors. This information, Hillmyer says, is essential to training the next generation of scientists to create new materials that “don’t have negative health consequences, will reduce our reliance on petroleum” and have what Hillmyer calls “programmed end-of-life designs.” By this he means making new synthetic chemicals that are designed “in environmentally friendly ways to be recycled or reconstituted.” Hillmyer, whose specialty is polymers, points out that it’s important to “think about this at the front end” rather than after the fact—as shown by the impacts of countless extremely useful but hazardous chemicals.
Like Cannon and Warner, Hillmyer acknowledges that we don’t yet have all the tools—educational or toxicological—that are needed.
“This is a great area for growth,” he says. Filling this gap was part of the impetus for developing a green chemistry course that would be part of the general chemistry curriculum.
“We made a conscious choice to teach this to our chemistry majors,” he explains. “We need to get this into the minds of people who are going to work for companies like Dow and DuPont.”
Students seem to need no persuasion: “Our course was oversubscribed. We had to turn people away,” says Hillmyer.
This fall, Cannon and Warner are teaching a course at Simmons College that Cannon says is “most likely the first toxicology course to be required of chemistry majors.” Warner explains that what this class will teach is “mechanistic toxicology,” which will begin to teach students “how to look at a molecule and know if it’s toxic.”
Warner uses the term “toxic” broadly, to include molecules that bind to DNA, are greenhouse gases or cause ozone depletion.
“If I could wave a magic wand, mechanistic toxicology would be the moral responsibility of anyone making a material,” Warner says.
Clearly there are no magic wands. But the challenging process of what Anastas describes as “changing how we define goals and performance” to produce new molecules that are more environmentally benign, more economically viable, and that will rival or outperform existing materials, is clearly underway.
This feature originally appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Momentum magazine, Ensia’s predecessor, as “Chemistry Goes Green.”