Green chemistry?

January 20, 2011

Scouring my university’s online alumni networking site, I’ve come across several names of people involved, not with alternative energy, but with green chemistry. Typically this involves developing biologically-derived replacements for petroleum derivatives. However, it’s been used to describe any process developments that circumvent the use of hazardous materials; one commonly-cited example is the use of supercritical carbon dioxide or water to replace traditional organic solvents. Here are the 12 principles of green chemistry, according to the EPA:

Prevention: It is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it has been created.

Atom Economy: Synthetic methods should be designed to maximize the incorporation of all materials used in the process into the final product.

Less Hazardous Chemical Syntheses: Wherever practicable, synthetic methods should be designed to use and generate substances that possess little or no toxicity to human health and the environment.

Designing Safer Chemicals: Chemical products should be designed to effect their desired function while minimizing their toxicity.

Safer Solvents and Auxiliaries: The use of auxiliary substances (e.g., solvents, separation agents, etc.) should be made unnecessary wherever possible and innocuous when used.

Design for Energy Efficiency: Energy requirements of chemical processes should be recognized for their environmental and economic impacts and should be minimized. If possible, synthetic methods should be conducted at ambient temperature and pressure.

Use of Renewable Feedstocks: A raw material or feedstock should be renewable rather than depleting whenever technically and economically practicable.

Reduce Derivatives: Unnecessary derivatization (use of blocking groups, protection/ deprotection, temporary modification of physical/chemical processes) should be minimized or avoided if possible, because such steps require additional reagents and can generate waste.

Catalysis: Catalytic reagents (as selective as possible) are superior to stoichiometric reagents.

Design for Degradation: Chemical products should be designed so that at the end of their function they break down into innocuous degradation products and do not persist in the environment.

Real-time analysis for Pollution Prevention: Analytical methodologies need to be further developed to allow for real-time, in-process monitoring and control prior to the formation of hazardous substances.

Inherently Safer Chemistry for Accident Prevention: Substances and the form of a substance used in a chemical process should be chosen to minimize the potential for chemical accidents, including releases, explosions, and fires.

Green chemistry doesn’t quite excite me the way alternative energy does, although I don’t question its importance. Anyway, tonight I sent an email to an alumnus who works for Khosla Ventures, a major venture capital firm that invests heavily in cleantech. He immediately forwarded my resume on to one of his portfolio companies, Draths. Draths is working on developing biological alternatives to the benzene supply chain, which includes nylon and resins. As it happens, they’re based in my hometown.

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