~Interview by Alicia Jumman for Ecochem.
The first in the series is an interview with Terry Collins, leading researcher from Carnegie Mellon University, Teresa Heinz Professor of Green Chemistry, and leader of the Institute for Green Science. As a distinguished expert in the field of Green Chemistry we are delighted to have Terry Collins as a Speaker at Ecochem this November. Collins discussion at our conference shall focus on TAML activators, a subject matter that he briefly touches on during his interview.
Q1) Could you please provide a brief introduction of the main area of your work?
I have invented the first full functional, small molecule mimics of any of the great families of oxidizing enzymes. They are called TAML activators and they mimic the peroxidase enzymes.
- So first, in the Institute for Green Science, we study these by furthering the iterative design protocol that led to them in the first place, thereby making progressively more powerful and useful catalysts.
- Second, we analyze the catalytic mechanisms of TAML processes and have taken this so far that we now have one of the best-understood mechanisms of a complex catalytic cycle in chemistry.
- Third, just think about the obvious importance. TAML activators are inexpensive, truly small molecules, dazzlingly effective catalysts that activate one of the principal oxidizing agents of biochemistry by mimicking the highly efficient reactive intermediates and mechanisms of the enzymes. So we have been building the range of demonstrated applications and can realistically claim that the number of possible efficient applications is enormous.
I will speak about the application that most enthuses me which involves the use of TAML/peroxide to reduce/eliminate with outstanding efficiency trace endocrine disruptors in water.
- Fourth, it turns out that some large volume everyday chemicals disrupt the hormonal control of cellular development and signaling to produce impaired creatures. This has tectonic significance to the chemical enterprise’s role in pursuing sustainability. Since I have the goal of seeing TAML/peroxide being used to remove endocrine disruptors from water on a large scale, I clearly also want to know that commercialized TAML activators are not themselves endocrine disruptors through their full lifecycle. Until recently, no one knew how to determine whether or not a chemical compound is an endocrine disruptor. I was privileged to be a member of a team of environmental health scientists and green chemists that produced over several years the Tiered Protocol for Endocrine Disruption (TiPED), which was published this January in the journal Green Chemistry. The living TiPED allows green chemists to know to the highest standards of contemporary science whether they have produced an endocrine disruptor. TAML catalysts are being run through the various tiers of assays showing that the TiPED is fully capable of catching developmental disruptors while giving added confidence that compounds that test negative are not endocrine disruptors. This adds greatly to the satisfaction we have derived upon finding that TAML/peroxide can decompose easily the most potent known endocrine disruptors in municipal effluent streams.
Well you have to be careful here with these predictions. I don’t know what the number is, but I would never accept any number without knowing the details of the products and processes that it derives from.
You have to ask if everything that is being called “green chemistry” is actually green chemistry.
Does it not make sense that the core responsibility of green chemists should to build the chemical dimension of a sustainable civilization? If this is our prime objective, then green chemists have to pay careful attention to whether or not a chemical product or process is non-hazardous throughout its full life cycle. And you have to be able to recognize and accept that certain technologies can’t be greened up—no matter what you do, the fundamental characteristics are such that these technologies will always be negative with respect to sustainability. If we don’t handle these challenges carefully, then the field by 2020 could sum to a grandiose failure. There are several monumental challenges here.
You can’t play games with mother nature.
First and foremost, incumbent unsustainable technologies are so often backed up by vast resources at a time when research money is particularly hard to come by. Green chemists have to be very careful that they do not get seduced into greenwashing unredeemable civilization killers. Second, you can’t play games with mother nature. She knows if a product or process is hazardous or not. So you have to study the hazard space of the full life cycle and ensure that no serious hazards are being overlooked or under appreciated.
If I had confidence that the present and projected numbers you quote do apply or will apply to technologies that are not tainted by greenwashing, then I would be truly impressed.
Q3) What is your opinion on the current identity of sustainability and Green Chemistry amongst your profession?
The truly exciting thing for any chemist engaging with a sustainability challenge is that he or she can be sure that they are working on a vitally important problem. The importance often directly pertains not only to the welfare of our own species, but often to all other living things as well.
In my opinion, we have huge and unmistakable sustainability challenges in the chemical professions.
The technical problem space spans our needs to deal with endocrine disruptors, persistent molecular compounds, toxic elements in distributive technologies, safe energy, renewable feedstocks, and nonhazardous synthetic procedures.
Progress is certainly being made in these various areas, but much more is needed. We need especially to recognize that sustainability challenges in the chemical professions are just as often cultural as they are technical. In the cultural dimension, we are currently babes in the woods when it comes to insight into how we must change to build a chemical technology base that is sustainable in its entirety. There is a big question mark over whether or not we will be able to find the will and the stamina to make the changes that trans-generational justice is clearly demanding right now. Again, the biggest problem is that many of our toxic products and processes are associated with big cash flows, which are powerfully defended. Personally, I think the best way to equip our students to be able to be leaders in handling the cultural challenges is to teach them the histories of our mistakes. These are often exquisitely documented and leave a lasting impression.
We need especially to recognize that sustainability challenges in the chemical professions are just as often cultural as they are technical.
Q4) In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge that the Green Chemistry community will face towards their goal for a sustainable future?
The biggest challenge is undoubtedly cultural. Sustainability has a compass. We must learn to choose to develop technologies that promise, based on the best contemporary science, to promote a sustainable future and move assertively away from those that are leading us toward an unsustainable future.
We have many energy and chemical technologies that are objectively ruinous of sustainability. These cannot be ignored if we are serious about pursuing sustainability. Yet a disquieting number of them are currently being expanded with abandon. The health and environmental penalties are being externalized in ways that militate against future generations and the future good for all life. All this is happening while there are often objectively sustainable choices clearly in existence to allow us to be honest by choosing to expand them instead.
So there is a serious leadership problem in parts of the chemical enterprise and this is echoed within the political establishments of many countries. The fact that the unsustainable technologies possess so much of the money is often controlling the power dynamic. I guess if you are big business making a lot of money from one of the technologies I am thinking of, then this might all sound like heresy to you. But if you are big business that has the desire and fortitude to lead humanity toward a sustainable future, then perhaps this is music to your ears. With sustainability, I don’t think any big industry can be a Janus and expect to be admired by history.
If you are developing sustainable products and processes while also expanding unsustainable products and processes, I am pretty sure you have a big problem as far as mother nature is concerned. And it is her opinion and the judgment of future generations that matter most when it comes to sustainability.
Q5) Do you think the image of the Green and Sustainable Chemistry industry needs to be altered to be more appealing for big businesses?
This is the wrong question.
You are asking if I believe our field needs to change its image to appeal more to big business. The right question is whether or not I believe the field needs to change its image to appeal more to mother nature. The same question needs to be put fairly and squarely before big business.
The reality for both big business and green chemistry is that you cannot negotiate with mother nature. Mother nature is a positional negotiator. She will tell you through science what the consequences of this or that technology choice will be. But there is no sweet-talking her out of her hard positions.
If big business wants to be positive force in building a sustainable world, and I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t really want that, then it has to take seriously the hard messages of science when they are conveying that profits are coming from unsustainable technologies. To be the great positive force it can be for sustainability, big business has to be its own harshest critic. It has to continue to be demanding of itself and it has to help the political leadership to put in place the incentives and constraints that make sustainable products and processes more attractive.
To be the great positive force it can be for sustainability, big business has to be its own harshest critic.
While there may be occasional exceptions to this following generality, when big business sends armies of lobbyists into the capitals of the world to tell the politicians that the science pointing to problems with their products is untrustworthy, it squanders opportunities to be a force for great good in the world. If we continue to expand the unsustainable products and processes, we will continue to entrench an unsustainable world for the kids and the grandkids.
If our civilization is to have a good future, we must continue to do our best to figure out how to make it more rewarding for big business to pursue sustainable trajectories. We have to figure out how better integrate health and the environment into the value proposition of technological progress. And big business needs to advance the public faith that it is genuinely sincere in its pursuit of sustainability. This is not a PR challenge for big business. This is the challenge of eschewing those profitable technologies that the scientific facts say are unsustainable and focusing on all that it takes to make sustainable alternatives profitable.
Q6) You’re speaking at Ecochem in November on the significance of water decontamination. How significant will this topic be to the global drive for sustainability?
I like to work on what I believe are the most important problems I might contribute to solving. Every human being, every animal, every fish, every aquatic organism deserves to thrive on or in water that is uncontaminated by the products and byproducts of the chemical enterprise. Bringing this about is one of the greatest sustainability challenges of our time.
So I derive the greatest of satisfaction from seeing in my lab at Carnegie Mellon University and in Susan Jobling’s lab at Brunel University’s Institute for the Environment as well as in field trials at a British municipal water plant how effective TAML/peroxide is in removing trace bioactive contaminants from water.
Q7) What, or who, are you most looking forward to hearing speak at our Ecochem conference and why?
I am really interested in getting the snapshot this conference offers of how well the field of green chemistry is doing in promoting sustainability.
Ecochem would like to say thank you to Terry Collins for taking part in our interview series. We are excited to bring these discussions with Terry to the Ecochem community and look forward to his talks at our conference.
Terry shall be speaking about TAML activators, under a Technical stream focused on Clean Synthesis & Process Intensification. For more information about our Ecochem Conference & Exhibiton please download the event brochure.