Science Wednesday: Learning About Green Chemistry and Sustainability

Posted on July 21st, 2010 – 10:30 AM


By Cathryn Courtin, US EPA. Previous Science Wednesdays.

My introduction to “green chemistry” came a few weeks ago when I sat in on a Sustainability Workshop conducted for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. The workshop was led by John C. Warner, Ph.D., founder of the Warner-Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry.

Dr. Warner has been honored with numerous awards, has hundreds of patents to his name, and enjoys widespread recognition in his field. He also co-authored Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice with EPA Assistant Administrator Paul Anastas, a book largely responsible for setting the Green Chemistry movement in motion.

During his presentation, Dr. Warner stated, “I have synthesized over 2,500 compounds, and I have never been taught what makes a chemical toxic. I have no idea what makes a chemical an environmental hazard!”

That certainly got my attention. How could it be possible that a chemist at the top of his field had never studied toxicity? Dr. Warner offered a surprising answer to this question. “In order to earn a degree in chemistry,” he stated, “no university requires any demonstration of knowledge regarding toxicity or environmental impact.” The presence of toxins, he explained “always gets found out later in the process because it’s not part of the training.”

Green Chemistry, I learned, is designed to change that. Its principles aim for less hazardous chemical synthesis and striving to design safer chemicals instead of dealing with hazard throughout the process. Of course this is not a simple matter, and Dr. Warner detailed just how complex and challenging it is. “It’s an incremental process”, he said, one which requires much research, hard work, and innovation. Products have already been patented, however, that have been designed following the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry.

“We’ve got to celebrate the improvements where they are” Warner says, and we have to proceed with the mind set to change the status quo. Green chemistry has the potential to protect human health and safety while creating more cost effective and better performing alternatives to the current process and products.

It seems that green chemistry is a huge frontier for further exploration and research as well as a huge opportunity not only for universities but for science in the U.S. as well. Green Chemistry has many other facets in addition to those I have mentioned. Although I was just recently introduced to the topic, Dr. Warner has helped me see how incredibly important it is.

About the Author: Cathryn Courtin is a student at Georgetown University in the Science, Technology, and International Affairs program. She is spending her summer working as a student contractor at EPA’s Office of Research and Development.