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.

Related Links

Old Tires Hit the Gridiron

Great Lakes residents use more than two million tires a year, and many of them end up in a landfill. But one Illinois school has found an unusual way to use some of those tires. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris Lehman has more:


Great Lakes residents use more than two million tires a year, and many of them end up in a landfill. But one Illinois school has found an unusual way to use some of those tires. And they’re saving on hospital costs as well. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris Lehman has more.

(natural sound football practice, fade under quickly)

From beer cans to soda bottles, there are plenty of items that can be recycled at a typical football game. But at the 31-thousand seat Huskie Stadium at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois, what is perhaps the largest recycling effort is in the field itself. More than 18-thousand ground-up tires are underneath the new surface of the playing field . . .mixed with sand; they provide a soft but durable base for all types of athletic events. The fake grass on top is similar to Astroturf, but project manager Norm Jenkins says this surface is better. He says the most important advantage is safety.

“It’s well documented over the last few years since these fields have been installed that the injury frequency goes way down in terms of ankle and knee injuries on this surface as opposed to the old Astroturf carpet. So it really simulates grass in that way. The other big advantage to this in our judgment is the appearance. Because really, as you sit in the stands at a Huskie football game–and even from the sidelines when you stand on that stuff–you’re convinced that the surface is grass. It looks, it appears just like a pristine grass playing surface”

The artificial turf at NIU is a brand called Field Turf. Jim Petrucelli is Vice-President of Turf USA, a Pittsburgh-based distributor of Field Turf. He says the scrap tires for the product are first washed with a high-pressure cleaning system similar to a car wash. But the tires aren’t run through grinder blades. That process is called ambient grinding because it takes place at room temperature. It tends to produce longer, rougher particles.

Instead, Petrucelli says the company cryogenically freezes the tires to temperatures below negative 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

“And then they drop them onto a hammer-mill. And the hammer-mill shatters them into pieces. And those pieces tend to have much flatter sides on them . . . that works much better in our system to prevent the rubber from migrating through the sand that it’s mixed with.”

Field Turf is used at several universities in the Great Lakes region, including the University of Cincinnati, Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, and at a University of Michigan field house. It’s also in use at dozens of high schools and public recreation facilities across the region, and has been installed in places as far away as Botswana and New Zealand.

Petrucelli says that at more than eight dollars a square foot, Field Turf is the Cadillac of artificial turf products. At Northern Illinois University, nearly one-third of the cost of installing the Field Turf was recovered through a variety of money-saving measures. The largest of these was a 200-thousand dollar grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs. The money was awarded to the school for its use of the tires, which came from a salvage yard near Chicago. Robert Albanese is NIU’s Associate Vice President of Finance and Facilities.

“Every time you purchase a new tire there’s a fee that goes along with it. It goes to this fund for recycling the tires. And this process will only work, is if we use those recycled materials on the other end. And this is probably one of the bigger uses for recycled rubber that we’ve seen in the state of Illinois.”

NIU Director of Recycling Mary Crocker says the use of old tires in the Field Turf project wasn’t just about saving money.

“We’re interested in keeping the tires out the landfills. So this is probably the most comprehensive recycling program that you can find, where virtually everything has to do with recycling.”

(More football sound under)

The old Astroturf, which was removed to make way for the Field Turf, was also recycled. The university sold it for use as a soccer field overseas, earning an additional 29 thousand dollars for the school. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Chris Lehman.