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Green Chemists

Jeff Hardy

The chemical industry is facing some tough challenges in Europe. European legislation is about to tighten the way chemicals are regulated and make chemical companies responsible for proving the environmental safety of the chemicals they produce. Even before legislation provided a specific impetus for cleaning up their act, chemistry companies and researchers were becoming aware of the need to replace common products, production methods, and feedstocks with substitutes that have less impact on the environment. Sustainable products and processes are being developed that should eventually replace the old ones. An army of "green chemists" is coming on stream that aims to continue the trend. "We need green chemists in at the start, designing processes from first principles," says Jeff Hardy of the United Kingdom's Royal Society of Chemistry.

Research in green chemistry has broadened now, with biologists and environmental scientists coming on board and international collaborations developing. Chemical companies are increasingly interested in the green approach, and governments are keen to fund the work. For researchers, the secret of success is to combine a good understanding of chemistry and the environment with a dose of commercial savvy to attract funding from companies, and commercially driven government initiatives. "You need a combination of pure and applied research," says James Clark, who runs the Green Chemistry Group at York University, "so you can test new ideas in case studies."

James Clark

Green chemistry's roots

The term "green chemistry" emerged in the United States in the 1990s, but the underlying ideas behind it have been around a long time. Green chemistry's early proponents were academic chemists looking for ways of making chemical industry cleaner and more efficient. "We were developing environmentally friendly processes like solid catalysts long before it was fashionable, or the word 'green' was used," says Clark. "We were [already] well set in the 1990s, when environmental legislation started to bite and the US Environmental Protection Agency started its green chemistry initiative."

Green chemistry "is about looking at every component of a production process, including energy input, side-products, solvents, engineering, and transportation," says Ed Marshall, a green chemist at Imperial College London. "Each stage should be made as efficient as possible without compromising environmental issues." It's really a philosophy, says Hardy, who trained as a green chemist at York University. "We are training chemists to think imaginatively about minimising environmental impacts and social and economic costs," he says. The philosophy isn't new; what's new is the discipline's recognition and influence. Green chemistry is getting popular.

Ed Marshall

Green opportunities for green chemists

The growth of interest in the field is reflected by the rise in the number of training programmes. Five years ago, Clark started the first European postgraduate course in green chemistry, a research masters (MRes) in Clean Chemical Technology. "Green chemistry is ultimately an educational initiative," he says. "If we are successful, future generations of chemical technologists will automatically think green."

Universities are starting to train young chemists in environmental principles to carry the momentum forward. Some organisations--including the Universities of Cambridge, Imperial College, London, and Ghent in Belgium--offer optional lecture courses on green chemistry as part of a standard chemistry degree, and they are well attended. Leicester University and the University of Zaragoza in Spain both have new masters-degree programmes. A multidisciplinary M.Sc. in sustainable chemistry will start at Imperial College London next year. Marshall is involved with planning the new degree. "Green chemistry is a hot topic," he says. "As young researchers are attracted to the field, they bring vibrancy. The career prospects are excellent."

Another indicator of the field's growth is funding levels; they, too, are also on the rise, says Helen Coombs from the Green Chemistry Network, an initiative that promotes awareness of green chemistry and links industry and government with academics in the field. "It seems like the pot of money is increasing. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) have put out a number of calls for specific proposals in green chemistry. And funding is coming from a variety of new sources, like the Department of Trade and Industry's Technology Programme and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs." At the European level, an initiative called SUSCHEM has been set up to advise governments on how to spend research money on sustainable chemistry so that the money supports industry.

Helen Coombs

Marshall says the drivers for green chemistry come equally from governments and industry. "Governments are responding to a perceived environmental concern in society," he says, "but the chemical industry is not the bad guy. Green chemistry is being seen by companies as a big potential competitive edge over rivals." He expects funding from both sources to continue increasing.

The trend towards green chemistry is likely to accelerate when the new European regulations, known as REACH (Regulation, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals), come online, probably by the end of this year. "REACH will severely limit the use of certain chemicals, like phthalates and bromo-flame retardants," Coombs says. That means that companies will have to find alternatives--quickly. And that means greater demand for green chemists and their wares.

Training as a green chemist

For those wanting to stay at the bench, a research degree in green chemistry can offer excellent--and surprisingly broad--training in chemistry. Rachel Platel has just started her PhD at Imperial College London, working to improve synthesis of the bioplastic polylactide, which is made from corn. "I am really enjoying the research," she says, "because it covers organic, inorganic, and polymer chemistry."

A green chemistry PhD is also good grounding for a career in industrial chemistry. Tom Bell, a PhD student at Leicester University, works on an alternative solvent class that's generating a lot of interest: ionic liquids. "These can be much less toxic than traditional solvents and easier to re-use," he explains. "I chose it because it was with an industrial partner," he says, "but I've found it very interesting. There is a lot of work to do in green chemistry, and real benefits for the world." Bell is still writing his PhD, but he has already been offered a job as an analytical chemist with a global manufacturing firm.

Tom Bell

Meeting industrial expectations

Even green chemists who want to stay in academia need to work closely with industry, as it is an important source of funding. But industry science can be an education for scientists used to the pace of academia. "We are always looking for new sources of funding," says John Archer, a geneticist who works in green chemistry at the University of Cambridge, "and seeking [an] industrial partnership is a good way to stay relevant." Working with Merck, Archer's team engineered bacteria to manufacture an enzyme that helps produce a crucial part of the drug Crixivan, which is used in the treatment of HIV patients. The method is cheaper than conventional organic chemistry synthesis and doesn't require petrochemical feedstock.

Unfortunately, the new process has not been utilised; Crixivan is now routinely made using a synthetic chemistry approach. Archer's team was just too slow. In order to meet industry's needs, "you need a purified version of an enzyme, and way of producing it, within 8 weeks," says Archer. "Our research took several years." Archer and his team learned from the experience. Working with Dowpharma, a unit of the Dow Chemical Company, they have speeded up the process of finding future candidate enzymes by sequencing the genome of their chosen bacteria. " Rhodococcus has a vast array of possible enzymes for breaking down complex carbon molecules," he says.

Green chemistry is all about industrial applications; if industry doesn't adopt the new techniques, they won't do any good. But that means scientists need to deliver products fast, and keep them cheap.The industry likes to stick to the tried-and-true, says Clark. "The chemical industry is very conservative, and new technologies need a lot of proving."

One way of getting into commercial mindset is to work in the commercial environment early in your career, even if your ultimate aspirations are academic. Green chemistry is starting to make progress now, Marshall says, because many people in the field have experience of industry. "There is a real understanding of the issues from both sides."

Whether you chose to work in academia or industry, green chemistry comes offers rewards both tangible and intangible. "The environmental importance is an added bonus," says Platel. "Students these days want to make a difference," adds Archer.

Green Chemistry Resources

Lynn Dicks is a science writer and editor based in the U.K.

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