Green Chemistry

  • Colin Horwitz is a researcher at Carnegie Mellon. He's working on a chemical that will break down pollution released by pulp and paper mills. (Photo by Reid Frazier)

Modern chemistry is everywhere – the paint on our walls, the ink on the morning newspaper, and the plastics in our computers.
Problem is – the chemicals are also in our air, water, and food. Reid Frazier visited a chemist who is trying to re-think how chemicals are made:


Modern chemistry is everywhere: the paint on our walls, the ink on the
morning newspaper, and the plastics in our computers. Problem is – the
chemicals are also in our air, water, and food. The Environment
Report’s Reid Frazier visited a chemist who is trying to re-think how
chemicals are made:

This room looks and sounds like a chemical lab anywhere in the world.
Trays full of vials sit atop machines with blinking lights. Notebooks
filled with hand-written numbers sit next to computer screens. But this
isn’t a typical chemistry lab.

Evan Beach is a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University in
Pittsburgh. He works at the Institute for Green Oxidation Chemistry, or
Green Ox. Beach is analyzing wastewater from a pulp and paper mill:

“We try and work with as close to the real pollution as we can. We
actually have the paper mill ship the stuff to us.”

Beach is working on a chemical that he hopes will clean up the
wastewater before it hits rivers and streams.

The Green Ox lab is run by Terry Collins. His career as a green chemist
started as a college student in his native New Zealand. He worked
during summers at a plant that made refrigerators. One summer, he
discovered that workers using a cleaning agent were all getting sick.

“Just in lunch with them I’d hear about their headaches and their blood
noses and I realized, my goodness, they’re using an awful lot of these
organic solvents, and if there’s any benzene there, these are signature
benzene intoxication conditions, early stage.”

Collins calculated the workers were getting slowly poisoned by benzene,
a chemical that’s known to cause cancer. He told company officials
about it and they promised to replace it.

“So I went a way, nine months later, I felt an obligation I went back
and checked they had made no change so I went and I got every paper I
could and I took it and dropped it on the chief chemist and I can still
remember his jaw hitting the floor when I opened the door and gave it
to him, I then tried to get the institute of chemistry to help and they
told me not to even bother going to the health department, that they
wouldn’t help, and they were probably right, and I just felt immensely
frustrated by the situation.”

After this experience, Collins decided to focus his research on
reducing the harm caused by modern chemicals. He started designing a
chemical catalyst in the 1980s. When combined with hydrogen peroxide,
the catalyst eats through long chains of harmful chemicals. It could
potentially clean up the paper, textile, and plastics industries. It
could also curb pollution found in almost every home in America: The
water coming out of your tap.

“If you have a glass of water in most American cities you get some
Prozac and you get many other things as well that come from the
pharmaceutical industry.”

The drugs can be found in trace amounts in tapwater. Their effect on
human health is still unknown. But these drugs are being flushed into
the environment and they don’t break down easily. Once they enter
rivers and streams, these chemicals can last for decades. Scientists
believe they might be affecting fertility in some animals. Collins and
his colleagues believe the catalyst they’re developing could break down
these drugs once they hit the environment.

Some believe all chemists should take a more holistic look at the
compounds they make. Sasha Ryabov is a physical chemist who works in
Collins’ lab. He worked as a traditional chemist at Moscow State
University in his native Russia. Ryabov converted to green chemistry
when he came to Green Ox. Since he’s made the switch, he thinks that
all chemists should consider themselves green:

“It’s not the future field… It’s a natural part that cannot be
separated. The green chemistry we are thinking should be part of
chemistry as a whole.”

While academics like Collins are forging new grounds in their field,
some big companies have started to follow suit by using more
environmentally-friendly products. One hitch is that the federal
government provides little funding for research in the field. A bill
before congress could boost funding for green chemistry. Regardless of
funding, Collins says all chemists must do their part to address some
of the problems their discipline has helped create:

“If you’re a chemist, and you have this information, it’s a burden to
carry. But we have to deal with it, we have no choice; we have to look
after the children of future generations.”

For the sake of those future generations, Collins hopes more chemists
see the value of taking the long view when they’re in the laboratory.

For the Environment Report, this is Reid Frazier.

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