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Sustainable Chemistry: Evolving Strategies and Renewable Practices

Overhead view of large storage tanks and manufacturing components amid a field of green grass at a biogas plant..
Photo by Martin Mecnarowski

In recent years, as the consequences of climate change and resource depletion have become increasingly apparent, sustainability has risen to the forefront of global concerns. Sustainable chemistry, a discipline aimed at developing environmentally friendly chemical processes and products, has emerged at the same time.

My previous article looked at the roots and development of traditional, mainstream chemistry and how that history birthed this key new specialization. This article digs deeper into sustainable chemistry’s rapid growth over the past three decades.

First, we examine a seminal development in the modern discipline: Anastas and Warner’s twelve green chemistry principles. Then we look at the several phases of biofuels in the United States, the recognition and commercialization of biocatalysts, and the reemergence of a product category that’s been with us forever—known today as bioproducts. Finally, we explore who the major players are and where the field stands today.

Green Chemistry Principles

The twelve principles of green chemistry were introduced by Paul Anastas and John Warner in 1998, to guide the development of more sustainable and environmentally friendly chemical processes and products.

It’s worth noting that the term sustainability is one of those words that’s gotten used so much that it has begun to lose its meaning (akin to semantic satiation but on a societal level). So what does sustainable mean here? To answer that, let’s look at what is not sustainable in the field.

Chemistry that relies on extracted inputs or feedstocks (e.g., petroleum and natural gas) might be considered unsustainable. As would the usually toxic and sometimes flammable reactions produced by chemical processes, along with the increased costs and disposal risks of their waste products. We already explored a few of the unforeseen and preventable accidents that evolved from the development of the chemistry industry.

So Anastas and Warner recognized that chemistry could clean up its act. Their principles provide chemists with a list of evolving strategic approaches to develop a variety of sustainable applications:

  1. Prevention: Focus on preventing waste generation rather than treating or cleaning up waste after it has been created.

  2. Atom Economy: Design chemical syntheses to maximize the incorporation of all materials used in the process into the final product.

  3. Less Hazardous Chemical Syntheses: Design chemical processes to use and generate substances with little or no toxicity to humans and the environment.

  4. Designing Safer Chemicals: Develop chemicals and products that maintain their desired function while minimizing their toxicity.

  5. Safer Solvents and Auxiliaries: Minimize the use of auxiliary substances, such as solvents and separation agents, and if used, choose safer alternatives.

  6. Design for Energy Efficiency: Design energy-efficient chemical processes to minimize energy consumption and reduce the environmental and economic impact.

  7. Use of Renewable Feedstocks: Use raw materials and feedstocks that are renewable rather than depleting finite resources.

  8. Reduce Derivatives: Minimize or avoid the use of blocking or protecting groups, or any temporary modifications, in chemical syntheses.

  9. Catalysis: Use catalytic reagents, which are more selective and can work at lower temperatures and pressures, over stoichiometric reagents.

  10. Design for Degradation: Design chemical products to break down into innocuous substances after their intended use, preventing environmental accumulation.

  11. Real-Time Analysis for Pollution Prevention: Develop real-time monitoring and control systems to detect and minimize hazardous substances at the point of formation.

  12. Inherently Safer Chemistry for Accident Prevention: Design chemicals and processes to be less hazardous, minimizing the potential for accidents, including explosions, fires, and releases to the environment.

Biotechnologies and Bio Hopes

Biofuels are alternative energy sources derived from biological materials, such as plants and algae. They have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and our reliance on fossil fuels. Biocatalysts refer to enzymes and other biological molecules used to catalyze (i.e., initiate or accelerate) chemical reactions. By utilizing biocatalysts, industries can develop more efficient and environmentally friendly processes. Bioproducts encompass materials, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals derived from renewable biological resources. These products offer a sustainable alternative to traditional petrochemical-based products.

Government policy plays a clear role in advancing or diminishing innovation in these areas. Supportive policies—such as subsidies, tax incentives, and research grants—have encouraged the development and adoption of sustainable chemistry technologies. Restrictive policies, including regulations and trade barriers, can hinder innovation and slow down the adoption of these technologies. Additionally, political and economic factors, such as the availability of resources and market demand, play an important role in shaping the trajectory of sustainable chemistry innovations.

To talk about bioproducts as a new thing ignores the obvious fact that, for a long time, people relied on bioproducts for everything. Still, in the modern sense, bioproducts have made significant inroads into numerous sectors, replacing traditional petrochemical-based materials and contributing to a more sustainable energy economy.

In contrast to the extractive, irreversible nature of traditional industrial processes, sustainable chemistry emphasizes renewable resources and processes that minimize waste and environmental impact. Innovations such as biodegradable plastics, biobased lubricants, and environmentally friendly solvents demonstrate the potential of sustainable chemistry to reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions while promoting economic growth.

Who's Involved in Sustainable Chemistry

Scientists and engineers at universities and research centers play a crucial role in developing new sustainable chemistry technologies and refining existing ones. At the same time, governments create the regulatory framework and provide funding to support research and development, as well as the adoption of such practices. Several joint government and entrepreneurial efforts in the United States have played an important role in promoting sustainable chemistry and fostering innovation in this important area.

The BioPreferred Program, launched by the US Department of Agriculture, promotes the use of biobased products, including those produced using sustainable technologies. The program developed a labeling system to help consumers identify biobased products. It also provides technical assistance and resources to companies interested in producing such products.

The Green Chemistry and Commerce Council (GC3) is a business-to-business network of companies and organizations working to promote the development and adoption of green chemistry technologies. The GC3 provides a platform for collaboration and information sharing among companies and also provides technical assistance and resources on green chemistry.

In addition, companies and investors are increasingly recognizing the value of sustainable chemistry, driving demand for new technologies and providing capital for further innovation. Sometimes biobased feedstocks or biocatalysts are more economical or preferred for their qualities—or always have been, as in the case of loofah sponges and many fibers and textiles.

Nongovernmental organizations and advocacy groups raise public awareness about the benefits of sustainable chemistry and advocate for supportive policies and regulations. These tend to be overwhelmingly industry organizations (like the chemical industry’s Responsible Care), though consumer advocacy groups also exist, such as the Environmental Working Group.

A Field Matures

Sustainable chemistry has emerged as a critical part of conversations addressing global challenges involving materials and energy. Advances over the past three decades have laid the groundwork for a more sustainable approach to chemical innovation and less reliance on extractive, and therefore unsustainable, feedstocks. To fully realize the potential of sustainable chemistry, however, we should encourage innovation, collaboration, and supportive policies.

We must continue gaining knowledge of how materials are and aren’t renewable, as well as the efficiency and safety components of chemical processes. In this article, we touched on inputs, catalysts, and wastes as aspects of chemistry that can be either extractive or sustainable, with varying degrees of hazard in the materials’ production or disposal.

As the field continues to evolve, key stakeholders—researchers, policymakers, industry players, and advocacy groups—must work together to promote sustainable chemistry practices. They will have to drive progress in this area in such a way that will benefit more stakeholders and make the needed transformations for a thriving, sustainable industry.

In my next article, we’ll look at the potential for these innovations to address global environmental challenges and their economic causes, as well as the risks we must mitigate to do so.

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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