Green chemistry aims to minimise the environmental impact of the chemical industry. This includes shifting away from oil to renewable sources where possible.
Green chemistry also prioritises safety, improving energy efficiency and, most importantly, minimising (and ideally) eliminating toxic waste from the very beginning.
Important examples of green chemistry include: phasing out the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in refrigerants, which have played a role in creating the ozone hole; developing more efficient ways of making pharmaceuticals, including the well-known painkiller ibuprofen and chemotherapy drug Taxol; and developing cheaper, more efficient solar cells.
The need to adapt
Making chemical compounds, particularly organic molecules (composed predominantly of carbon and hydrogen atoms), is the basis of vast multinational industries from perfumes to plastics, farming to fabric, and dyes to drugs.
In a perfect world, these would be prepared from inexpensive, renewable sources in one practical, efficient, safe and environmentally benign chemical reaction. Unfortunately, with the exception of the chemical processes found in nature, the majority of chemical processes are not completely efficient, require multiple reaction steps and generate hazardous byproducts.
While in the past traditional waste management strategies focused only on the disposal of toxic byproducts, today efforts have shifted to eliminating waste from the outset by making chemical reactions more efficient.
This adjustment has, in part, led to the advent of more sophisticated and effective catalytic reactions, which reduce the amount of waste. The 2001 Chemistry Nobel Laureate Ryoji Noyori stressed that catalytic processes represent “the only methods that offer the rational means of producing useful compounds in an economical, energy-saving and environmentally benign way”.
A secret to cleaner chemistry
Catalysts are substances that accelerate reactions, typically by enabling chemical bonds to be broken and/or formed without being consumed in the process. Not only do they speed up reactions, but they can also facilitate chemical transformations that might not otherwise occur.
In principle, only a very small quantity of a catalyst is needed to generate copious amounts of a product, with reduced levels of waste.
The development of new catalytic reactions is one particularly important area of green chemistry. As well as being more environmentally friendly, these processes are also typically more cost effective.
History suggests that society can develop creative solutions to complex, intractable problems. However, success will most likely require a concerted approach across all areas of science, strong leadership, and a willingness to strategically invest in human capital and value fundamental research.
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