Green chemistry conference highlights UC Berkeley’s unique approach

March 22, 2011
By: Robert Sanders, Media Relations

The chemical industry is going “green” in a big way, marketing products as more sustainably produced, less toxic and recyclable.

Yet, the proliferation of green cleaning products, office supplies, packaging and appliances belies the fact that more than 80,000 chemicals with uncertain health and environmental impacts currently are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency, with more discovered every day.

“Green chemistry involves discovering and implementing chemical processes and products that are safer, cleaner and more efficient,” said John Arnold, professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the campus’s Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry (BCGC), which hosts its first national conference on Thursday, March 24.

“The Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry has created a multidisciplinary team that represents all aspects of chemistry, from research and development to consumers and the environment,” he added. “Through research, education and engagement, we aim to facilitate change by embedding the principles of green chemistry into science, markets and public policy.”

The BCGC already has begun redesigning undergraduate and graduate student education to include green chemistry by creating greener laboratory experiments and launching an interdisciplinary graduate course in green chemistry funded by California Environmental Protection Agency. But the center aims for a broader impact – on public policy as well as on the chemical industry.

The March 24 conference is the center’s first major event, and it is sold out. Sponsored by the Philomathia Foundation, it will highlight the unique, multifaceted nature of the BCGC.

“We’re trying to promote activities that address more than one aspect of green chemistry, that also look at economics, business, law, toxicology or public health,” Arnold said. An immediate goal of the new center is to raise money to support graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in such cross-disciplinary research.

Green chemistry involves more than chemistry

Green chemistry programs are not new at universities or in the research labs of chemical companies, but most focus only on innovations in chemistry, such as developing catalysts or safer solvents, according to Alastair Iles, a UC Berkeley assistant professor of environmental science, policy and management and a center member.

“These technical developments are critical to achieving sustainability, but they won’t be as effective or be widely used without also finding societal innovations in policy, law, environmental health and business,” Iles noted. “In contrast, BCGC has a vision of integrating multiple disciplinary fields with chemistry so that chemists can work with toxicologists, business experts, regulators and economic experts to develop technologies and products that are non-toxic and sustaining.”

The pain-killer ibuprofen (Advil) is one example of how legal and business issues can affect the ways in which a chemical product is made, Arnold said. While still on patent, Advil was synthesized in a six-step chemical process that produced a significant amount of toxic, wasteful byproducts, he said. After the patent expired, innovative competitors designed a cheaper, three-step process with almost no waste.

“Green chemistry is already being taken up by industry because it’s cheaper, you don’t have as much waste, you use less energy, and you’re making products that are safer, so you don’t have to worry about what going to happen at the end of the life of a product,” said Marty Mulvihill, executive director of the center. “It just needs to be taken up by the entire industry in a transparent way that gives businesses and consumers the information they need to make choices.”

Mulvihill, who received his Ph.D. from the campus’s Department of Chemistry in 2009, was one of the graduate students who first broached the idea of a UC Berkeley center devoted to green chemistry.

“Our group of graduate students organized a symposium on green chemistry and sustainable design that helped show chemists that they can have a positive impact on the world by designing sustainable chemicals,” Mulvihill said. The symposium spurred the campus’s Berkeley Institute of the Environment (BIE) to sponsor a series of round table discussions that attracted a broad range of researchers from UC Berkeley. With the strong backing of College of Chemistry Dean Richard Mathies and School of Public Health Dean Steven Shortell, the center was formally created in October 2009, under the aegis of the BIE.

The greening of undergraduate labs

The first milestone was a $250,000, one-year grant awarded last year from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to redesign laboratory experiments for the introductory chemistry classes taken by nearly half of UC Berkeley’s students, and to support a graduate student seminar on green chemistry.

Chem 1A labs on campus now include a series of experiments investigating the chemical properties, toxicity and energy content of biofuels. Another experiment looks at the effects of ocean acidification. A third, designed to show how chemicals change color, replaces a chromium salt with a safer, copper-based chemical.

“Our goal is to use fewer nasty chemicals, while teaching students how chemistry can be used to solve problems,” Mulvihill said.

The DTSC just awarded the center another $250,000 to complete the Chem 1A project, add new labs for Chem 4A and 4B – the introductory chemistry courses for science majors – and develop three new advanced graduate-level green chemistry classes.

Key to the success of the BCGC is its connection with other schools and departments across the campus, including the School of Public Health. Michael Wilson, BCGC associate director for integrative sciences and an environmental health scientist at the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, was lead author of a 2006 study commissioned by the California legislature that detailed the role of green chemistry in solving mounting problems related to chemical pollution and exposures in California, and urged the state to take the helm in establishing a comprehensive policy for chemical production and use.

A second report in 2008, commissioned by the administration of former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and co-authored by Wilson, physician and environmental health scientist Megan Schwarzman, and UCLA colleagues, amplified those findings and carried the signatures of 130 scientists from seven UC campuses.

California’s Green Chemistry Initiative

Those reports formed the technical basis for the state’s Green Chemistry Initiative and new legislation authored by Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) and Assemblymember Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles). Those new laws, and their implementing regulations, could improve public access to information on the sale of chemical products in the state and reductions in some uses of the most toxic chemicals, Wilson said.

As members of the state’s Green Ribbon Science Panel, Wilson and Schwarzman have worked with the DTSC to shape the Green Chemistry Initiative, with the hope that it will improve transparency and accountability in the chemicals market. Wilson has provided expert testimony at hearings in Sacramento, pointing out that these measures are needed to motivate industry investment in green chemistry on a broad scale.

“California’s Green Chemistry Initiative and UC Berkeley are responding to this fundamental problem: There is no requirement in the U.S. that the producers of chemicals demonstrate the safety of those chemicals to place them on the market,” Wilson said. “In the U.S., 74 billion pounds of chemicals are bought and sold every day with very little understanding of their health and environmental implications. It is appropriate – and necessary – for government is to step in and make sure that the buyers of all this material have information on the hazardous properties of chemicals, and make sure that the worst chemicals ‑ the most hazardous to people and the environment ‑ are off of the market.”

“At Berkeley, we’ve recognized that to change that system, we have to have the whole group of experts at the table, including chemists, engineers, environmental health scientists, but also lawyers, business leaders, policy experts and so forth,” he added. “Berkeley is looking at the structural origins of chemical pollution and chemical exposures through all of these lenses, and I think our proposed solutions will be really effective because they will reflect the expertise that comes from this kind of interdisciplinary work.”

“Ultimately, in society, what we would like to see is the design of chemicals and products that don’t come at the expense of humans or the environment,” said Megan Schwarzman, the center’s associate director of health and environment. ”That would mean creating chemicals that are short-lived and degrade in the environment so they don’t show up in breast milk 30 years after they have been banned, and industrial processes that use benign substances. I think we have the ingenuity and the know-how to do that, and we have to prioritize it as a society.”

“Chemistry is everywhere in our lives – from the air we breathe, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the houses we live in, and the medicines that keep us well,” Arnold added. “The center will work to ensure that we meet our chemical needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.”

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