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Green Chemistry and Engineering: Past, Present, Future

By Sam Benjamin

Many modern chemists and process engineers devote themselves to Green Chemistry – a branch of science that aims to eliminate the use, production and release of hazardous substances via better chemical designs and systems.

Their ultimate goal – as well as ours here at Ecochem - is to aid in the discovery and development of environmentally benign, non-toxic and sustainable alternatives for chemical products, systems, materials, solvents, catalysts and feedstocks in order to create a more neutral chemical industry, minimising its impact on human health and the global ecosystem.

The experts in this field see it not just as an area of science but as a philosophy, a ‘way of life’ for chemists and engineers to follow and improve their practices.

The experts in this field see it not just as an area of science but as a philosophy, a ‘way of life’ for chemists and engineers to follow and improve their practices.

This philosophy is perfectly summarised by the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry and the 12 Principles of Green Engineering, and is also well-explained in the video below by the brilliant Martyn Poliakoff, Research Professor in Chemistry at the University of Nottingham and one of Ecochem’s Advisory Board members.

To gain a deeper understanding of the concept, we’ll explore where Green Chemistry and Engineering stems from, where it is today, and what the future holds for this expanding area of research and development.

Green Chemistry: The Past

Risk = Hazard x Exposure

Until a little over 20 years ago, minimising exposure was considered the best way of dealing with risk.

After the 1990 US Pollution Prevention Act was passed, attitudes changed: reducing the real cause of risk – HAZARD – became the focus.

This idea was completely revolutionary at the time but, as technical developments propelled the concept of Green Chemistry forward, many began to realise its social, environmental and economic potential – or the ‘triple-bottom line’, as it became known.

Reducing the real cause of risk – HAZARD – became the focus.

With bodies such as the Green Chemistry Institute (GCI) – part of the American Chemical Society (ACS) – and the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge (PGCC) actively promoting the uptake of sustainability within the industry, it paved the way for chemical companies to develop greener chemistry and production processes.

Green Chemistry: The Present

Today you may struggle to find anyone who considers the concept of Green Chemistry to be ‘revolutionary’, but then you may also struggle to believe that, despite its relatively high status in the public perception, only 10% of current technologies can be considered environmentally benign, with another 25% that could be made so.

That leaves 65% of sustainable technologies within the chemical industry still to be discovered (Warner Babcock IGC).

Some of the world’s largest chemical companies – Dow, BASF, Pfizer, Bayer and Procter & Gamble, to name but a few – have made huge advances in reducing the health and environmental impacts of their products, and the spectrum of green and sustainable technologies developed by researchers and scientists has become vast.

Green Chemistry: The Future

With 65% of the market still to discover and the triple-bottom line a stronger case for Green Chemistry than ever, it is expected that the fast-paced growth of the market will continue, from $2.8 billion in 2011 to $98.5 billion in 2020 (Pike Research).

Contrary to this huge market potential, the aim for scientists in the field is to eliminate the need for Green Chemistry, and their expertise, altogether.

They envision an industry where sustainability and environmental benignity are second nature – where the fundamental principles of Green Chemistry are fully integrated into the conception, design, processing and end product of all materials and chemicals.

As two of the leading experts Paul Anastas and Mary Kirchhoff state in their articleOrigins, Current Status, and Future Challenges of Green Chemistry”:

The revolution of one day becomes the new orthodoxy of the next.

They hope that in the near-future, an epistemic community will develop on the subject of Green Chemistry and Engineering, and beyond that, there’ll be no need for one.

 

VIDEO of Martyn Poliakoff – a great proponent of Green Chemistry – explaining its concept and why it is needed.

 


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