The Future's Bright, the Future's Green


Green chemistry was a red-hot topic at this year's British Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Festival in Glasgow. Why? Well, chemistry-based industries are under increasing pressure from both society and governments to clean up their act. And green chemistry involves the design, manufacture, and use of environmentally benign chemical products via processes that prevent pollution and reduce environmental and human health risks. But as James Clark, director of the Green Chemistry Research Network, explained, the aim is to make chemistry not just greener and cleaner, but also more efficient. Ideally chemical processes should use a renewable feedstock, produce a 100% yield at ambient temperature and pressure, and use no solvent. And in a perfect world, the product should either be fully recyclable or, if released into the environment, nontoxic.

From an environmental and economic point of view, one way of measuring greenness is to look at atom economy (the greater the percentage of atom utilisation the greener the process). Catalysis, solvent replacement (using supercritical fluids), waste minimisation, and energy efficiency are just some of the techniques being explored by green chemists.

Several UK initiatives are boosting the growth of green chemistry research. The Royal Society of Chemistry launched a journal, Green Chemistry , in April 2001, and it sponsors the Green Chemistry Awards, with a £10,000 prize up for grabs by an academic scientist under the age of 40. Meanwhile the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funds the Green Chemistry Research Network (GCRN) based at the University of York. The GCRN aims to promote awareness and facilitate education, training, and the practice of green chemistry in industry, academia, and schools. To this end they have developed a GCSE resource book and a new Faraday partnership incorporating a substantial training programme. The latter seeks to link industry and the UK science and technology base to provide a virtual centre of excellence in low cost, sustainable manufacturing technology.

The University of York is leading the way in education and research in clean chemical technology and its green chemistry research group has an annual research income of close to £1M. Clark believes that green chemistry will be incorporated into existing chemistry courses, so that undergraduates will automatically be thinking green by the time they graduate. For the current crop of chemists, York has a new 1-year Master of Research (MRes) in Clean Chemical Technology. EPSRC-funded places are available, and industry is being encouraged to fully fund additional studentships. A key component of the course is an industry-related research project, which could be in the pharmaceutical, food and beverage industry, or other chemical companies. The MRes will include modules covering green chemistry, renewable resources, alternative energy sources, and innovative engineering. There will also be modules on intellectual property, business opportunities, and case studies, as well as transferable skills courses in language and IT.

Many other universities are now following York's lead in trying to promote this area both at the undergraduate level and beyond. For example, at Newcastle University, chemical engineers have started the Process Intensification and Innovation Centre to optimise capital, energy, environmental, and safety benefits by reductions in the physical size of process plants. While lectureships and chairs in green chemistry are not yet a reality in this country, Clark told Next Wave that he believes that Britain will follow the lead of other countries, such as Sweden, where such posts already exist. Industry's drive to develop cleaner technology will also result in more jobs in audit (overseeing the greening of chemical processes), he suggests. In this respect chemists who already have some awareness of the newer clean technologies may find that new job opportunities exist, though Clark cautioned that industry is perhaps not quite ready for "raging environmentalists."

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