The Golden Age of Green Chemistry

It becomes clearer every day that human civilisation has an enormous impact on the global environment and this impact is rarely a positive one. Significant changes are needed in order to slow down climate change, prevent pollution and sustain dwindling natural resources. This need is particularly clear in the chemical industry, which is why more and more companies are embracing the principles of green chemistry.

Green chemistry is a specialised discipline that advocates for more intelligent and sensitive production processes in industries that make extensive use of chemicals. The goals of green chemistry are to maximise the safety of chemical end products, minimise the production of hazardous waste and to reduce the amount of non-renewable resources required for chemical production. Also commonly called sustainable chemistry, this is a scientific field that has been slowly growing for twenty years.

As climate change and environmental damage become more widespread and the importance of sustainability have become widely understood, green chemistry is finally getting the attention it needs to effect real change in the way chemicals are created, used, and disposed of. If the environmental hazards posed by modern industrial chemical use were to be summarised, the key problem which appears over and over is a failure to account for scalability and long-term effects. Chemical processes which produced effective results in the laboratory were rushed into industrial applications with little consideration as to the impact they would have when scaled up thousands or millions of times.

The history of 20th-century chemistry is rife with cautionary tales in virtually every industry from agriculture (e.g. DDT) to oil (e.g. leaded gasoline) to pharmaceuticals (e.g. Thalidomide). While the greatest failures of chemical engineering caused public outcry, the earliest responses were largely regulatory in nature, i.e. monitoring and restricting the production of hazardous chemicals. Green chemistry seeks to provide a superior solution by pioneering and promoting safer alternatives rather than policing and punishing companies that introduce hazardous materials into the environment or the marketplace. While the first stirrings of green chemistry occurred throughout the 1990s, the discipline really took off with the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry. These were formulated and published by Paul Anastas and John Warner in Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice in 1998.

Aimed primarily at professional chemists and chemical engineers, the 12 principles cover both general concepts like preferring reusable raw materials to nonrenewable ones (Principle 7) and very specific chemical practices, like using selective catalytic reagents rather than stoichiometric ones (Principle 9). Taken as a whole, the most notable thing about the 12 Principles is that they address the problem of hazardous chemicals and environmental damage at both the smallest and the largest scales. They introduced the concept of “Atom Economy” in order to minimise the production of waste at the level of the individual chemical reaction (Principle 2). At the same time, the Principles advocated holistic start-to-finish analysis of industrial chemical operations to search for ways to stop pollution (Principle 11). Green chemistry’s main goals are to make chemicals safer to create, use and dispose of. Hazardous waste should never be created if safer processes are available. Finite resources should be eschewed in favour of renewable ones. Chemical processes at every scale should be scrutinised for their safety and environmental impact.

Green chemistry is a specialised discipline that advocates for more intelligent and sensitive production processes in industries that make extensive use of chemicals.

One of the key factors driving green chemistry into the spotlight today is that environmental concerns are now being buttressed by economic pressure. A survey of CEOs in the chemical industry conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2014 showed that more than threthree-quartersthem were concerned by the rising costs of both raw materials and energy¹. This means that green chemists now have a golden opportunity to make the case for sustainable chemistry as an alternative that is both economically and environmentally desirable. As noted above, the first major reactions to industrial chemical failures have tended to be regulatory, punitive and crisis-based in the past.

While strong regulation and government oversight can help to mitigate the impact of a harmful chemical or production process after it has already been introduced, green chemistry aims to act in preventative ways in order to lessen the damage caused by industrial chemical processes in the future. This is where the otherwise closely-related fields of green chemistry and environmental chemistry diverge. While environmental chemistry studies the impact that chemicals have on the natural environment, green chemistry examines the way harmful chemicals escape into the environment in the first place and looks for alternative production strategies that will prevent this kind of damage in the future.




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