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A Sustainable Chemistry Primer

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

An oil refinery with a sunset behind it
Photo by Robin Sommer

You may not have heard much about it, but sustainable chemistry is—already today—a well-defined area of research in the fields of chemistry and engineering. Its origins lie in the early 1990s, when two chemists recognized the systematic considerations necessary to transform the way industry produces things in society.

John Warner and Paul Anastas nearly single-handedly jump-started research initiatives in the largely dormant field, which they termed “green chemistry.” With their twelve principles of green chemistry (outlined in the book Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice), they presented a framework for developing chemical products and processes that are safer and more sustainable.

We will get into the finer details of that framework in my next post. For this introduction, we need to first examine the backdrop against which sustainable chemistry situates itself (i.e., mainstream modern chemistry). And to that end, we need to look back through time to see how we arrived in a world where we might even be interested in sustainable chemistry.

What We Talk About when We Talk About Sustainable Chemistry

The essence of sustainable chemistry involves finding replacements for the near-total use of petroleum-derived solvents and toxic heavy-metal catalysts as inputs in industry. As a still emerging area of industrial practice, it promotes using different feedstocks like wood and algae instead of petroleum, natural gas, and their intermediates (i.e., fossil feedstocks), which predominate in commercial usage today.

These fossil feedstocks are traceable to wells in the ground or deep underwater. Such wells contain petroleum of various grades or natural gas, which is rich in propane, other hydrocarbon gasses (ethane, methane, and butane), and liquids called NGLs (natural gas liquids). To be clear, these feedstocks are vast, but they are essentially unreplenishable.

If we consider oil and gas extraction a form of mining, there’s something special about mining petroleum. Since it’s a liquid or gas, the valuable material is obtained through extractive drilling and pumping operations rather than strip or open-pit mining. As a liquid, it can flow up a drill bore and be conveniently pumped through pipelines and stored. The forms in which we find material resources are part of their value.

When comparing the energy invested to the energy of the fuel product—say, between gasoline from petroleum and biofuels from corn or canola oil—it’s often not mentioned that the products are made in very different ways. For petroleum, nature has done some of the work, and the petroleum industry finishes and delivers the product. For biofuels, the farming of the feedstocks, the processing, and the delivery must all be done by humans, with nature only providing the sun.

The Evolution of Materials, Energy, and Understanding

Until the invention of synthetic textiles, nearly everything made of fibers—clothing, rope, upholstery, carpeting—was derived from plants and animals and made by hand. With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, machines changed the game across multiple industries, including the production of textiles and textile products.

Energy is of obvious importance to us all. We need it to get around, to keep ourselves warm or cool, and to secure food, water, and other necessities of life. Energy is stored in materials, so when we think about materials, we must take special consideration of those used for energy.

One story of energy translates to the story of society. As fuel materials evolved—from plant matter like wood for fire fuel, to the rising prominence of coal, and on to the discovery and scaling up of the oil industry, an offshoot of the mining industry—the extraction trend solidified due to the utility of metal in building machines.

We might start to consider energy materials and this well-worn process of meeting the needs of people with certain solutions, which other solutions then come to replace, as depending on the evolution of understanding, materials utility, and economics. An important element of economics is the energy required to create certain value, and we can never forget that the meaning and significance of historical contexts help us better understand why people focused their attention and resources in the ways they did.

Timeline of a Discipline

Thousands of years ago, chemistry (even if it didn’t go by that name) was already being used to make valuable materials and substances. Our ancestors extracted essential oils from plants and animals and used minerals and salts to produce dyes and pigments. Ancient Egyptians benefited from perfume, cosmetics, and medicines. In Greece and Rome, they created glass, pottery, and medicines using minerals, salts, and animal-derived components. And chemical innovations by the people of ancient China included gunpowder and fireworks, mortar compositions, and early refinements to glassmaking

From the fifth to fifteenth centuries—roughly parallel to the emergence of chemistry as a science from protoscientific alchemical origins—distillation and an understanding of acids and bases developed. Paracelsus (c. 1493–1541), a Swiss physician and alchemist, and Irish-born Robert Boyle (1627–1691) are credited with having catalyzed increasingly systematic approaches to studying materials, a discipline that would come to be known as chemistry.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed an expansion of scientific knowledge and technology that’s difficult to imagine today. The new machines of the Industrial Revolution—such as the steam engine, internal combustion engine, and power-generating turbine—led to ways of harnessing energy on a scale previously unseen.

In the world of chemistry, the synergy of the Industrial Revolution and fossil fuels meant the realization of industrial plants and the extensive utility of distillation. Distillation enabled the separation of petroleum into distillates, tar, and waxes, which, as we’ve seen above, drive the present-day chemical industry.

Gaseous Stars Are Born

Another critical milestone was the rise of the use of halogens in industrial chemistry. It’s not possible to imagine chemistry as it is currently taught, conceptualized, and practiced without these elemental gasses. A huge part of the chemical industry workforce utilizes either petroleum resources, halogenated petroleum resources, or both.

Halogen chemistry exists as one of the early developments in chemistry history that would lead to what we now consider organic chemistry, the chemistry of any carbon-containing compounds. Halogen chemistry’s early use grew along with the demand for and application of hard-to-get-wrong industrial processes involving chlorine, iodine, and fluorine. Such applications promised, for example, a sparkling future where we could grow plants we wanted while killing the ones we didn’t want with powerful herbicides, like Agent Orange.

The field also delivered chlorinated disinfection. Water could now be treated for the most notorious infectious diseases. In 1900, cholera and typhoid fever affected the US population at a rate of about 100 people in 10,000, versus today’s 0.1 cases per 10,000. Iodine was isolated from seaweed in 1811 and nearly immediately recognized as having value as a disinfectant in medicine.

Other halogenated aromatics, like benzene, provided new options for new fragrances, and the look of the world’s material colors was changing thanks to synthetic dyes—often in synergy with the Wonders of Plastics.

Early Questions About Emerging Risks

What can’t you make from this finite but unquantifiably useful liquid that gushes out of the ground? It is energy for our factories and transportation; it’s material with seemingly endless uses. It even helps us grow our food and cure disease! What’s not to love? How could anybody ever have a problem with this stuff?

As early as 1775, Percivall Pott obtained the first clear evidence of a connection between an environmentally specific occupational exposure and cancer. Pott observed a high incidence of scrotal cancer among chimney sweeps and linked it to their exposure to soot and other substances that came from burning coal (petroleum’s close relative).

His pivotal work helped lead to the passage of a 1788 law regulating the chimney-sweeping industry in England, which included prohibiting the use of young boys as chimney sweeps. This cancer is now known to be caused by exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are found in coal tars, which are still used in a variety of products today.

Chemistry’s Power Comes at a Cost

Despite the development of the fields of toxicology, epidemiology, occupational health, and environmental science, the chemical industry spreads largely unchecked across countries, states, and many individual sectors. Its most prominent players move megatons of materials all around the globe by rail, air, truck, and ship—with strained and often diminishing oversight, transparency, or accountability for those that manage the resources.

These global systems balance on the razor’s edge between profit and loss with the strategy taught openly in business: externalize costs and internalize monetization. Economists and accountants talk about cost structures. Cost structures include capital investment and operating expenses. Operating expenses include fuel and maintenance costs.

On one side are the needs and costs of the equipment. On the other side are the financial projections that require many things to go correctly for revenue to outpace costs. That’s how we can say that the railroad is hamstrung—between economic models and the reality imposed by the laws of physics and Murphy’s law (i.e., what can go wrong will go wrong).

Unfortunately, it’s only a matter of time before the next train derailment and hazardous chemical release, a new discovery of years-long community contamination, or another exposure of greenwashing by one of the most powerful brands in the world. The modern chemical industry uses vast sums of money and political clout to maintain its interests and entrenched ways, which have been developed over hundreds of years.

Sustainable chemistry precisely aims to reduce the amount of hazardous materials that need to be transported and disposed of. In my next piece in this series, we’ll look at the principles of sustainable chemistry, including developments that show there is reason for measured optimism: there are paths to feedstocks, catalysts, solvents, and even spent reaction media that reflect a more sustainable path into the future.

Kiya Kersh is an innovator in molecular diversity for wellness, a sustainability expert, and an integrator of physical, living, and data systems for people-centered impacts. Based in northeast Los Angeles, Kiya has over twenty years' experience in commercializing sustainable technologies. She strives to develop better ways for creators and transformation agents to get paid, primarily via the LA Queer Business Collective.

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