Greening the Lab

Chemistry instruction changes as professors consider inputs and outputs of every reaction and teach an environmental ethos.
June 25, 2007

Laboratory space was at a premium at the University of Oregon back in 1996. The organic chemistry course alone had 265 students clamoring for spots in a lab built for 17.

So there were 17 lab sections. “51 hours of lab a week,” says Ken Doxsee, a professor of chemistry. “We were meeting every evening and on Saturday mornings. It was just inappropriate for everyone involved.” Frustrated, Doxsee and his colleague, Professor James E. Hutchison, decided to look for less toxic experiments students could conduct in labs lacking fume hoods, opening up whole new spaces to handle the overflow. “It started,” Doxsee says, “with very pragmatic considerations like that.”

The tale may read as an amusing anecdote, but the beginnings of green chemistry at Oregon – a pioneer and leader in the still fledgling field – may be emblematic of the rise of green chemistry in industry and education more generally. “Practical needs can bring about changes,” says Doxsee. “I would like to believe that the whole world is being thoughtful about the future. I think a lot of interest may come from the practical realization of what green chemistry can offer.”

As colleges and companies increasingly “go green” – or say they are, anyway – many chemists believe the attention to what materials come into and out of the lab is poised to grow. Beakers bubbling with toxic waste and greenhouse gas byproducts no longer fly as standard costs of doing science in an increasing number of college laboratories across the country.

Parallel, and perpendicular, to all this, the external pressures to teach green chemistry in the university classroom and laboratory are likewise mounting, says John Warner, director of the Center for Green Chemistry at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. Companies, he says, see the dollar value in producing less waste – and lowering hefty disposal expenses – and the cheaper cost of doing business that comes along with producing less hazardous, less tightly regulated products. “Industry’s not stupid. They want to make the safe materials. The reality is that we don’t teach people how," Warner says.

“Nationally, there is a big push for sustainability. Campuses have to be sustainable. So what does that mean, that we run around and change light bulbs? That’s all we know how to do,” Warner says.

“When [the] curriculum starts to get into sustainability, that’s the tipping point.”

'Smart' Chemistry

Liz Gron, an associate professor of chemistry at Hendrix College, which has embraced a green chemistry curriculum on a departmental level, describes green chemistry as an “ethic you apply to the science you do.”

Contrary to what some might suppose, green chemistry does not necessarily refer to the study of environmental topics, but instead the infusion of an environmental ethic regardless of what topic, be it thermodynamics or plastics, is being taught or studied. One of the earliest green chemistry experiments undertaken at Oregon, for example, featured a more benign approach for synthesizing adipic acid, a major component of nylon that, when produced commercially, has typically resulted in the production of nitrous oxide, a pollutant.

“We look at a chemical reaction or a chemical process. We look at everything that goes into it, whether it’s a starting material or a reagent or a solvent or materials to run the reaction in, and we look at everything that comes out, which is what you want, and any byproduct, and consider each of those things as something where you ought to think about health and safety and the environment,” says Doxsee, who, with Hutchison, leads National Science Foundation-funded summer workshops in green chemistry education at Oregon.

“If you’re making a byproduct, do you have to? If you’re using a solvent, do you have to?…If you start with two reactants, do you incorporate both of them in your product or does 50 percent of one of them get thrown away as waste? If you have to start with a material, does it require you to isolate it from petroleum, or can you get it from a renewable source?” asks Doxsee.

“Basically, that’s what the green principles say, is to look at everything and make sure you’re being smart.”

It sounds simple, but while chemists who jumped on the bandwagon as it started moving back in the 1990s say they see real signs of growth, it’s still slow-going. “I still have the impression that there are pockets of activity at the undergraduate level, rather than the wholesale adoption of green chemistry,” says Mary Kirchhoff, who came to her position as the director of the American Chemical Society's education division in December with a green chemistry background. “Like any new idea, it just takes time…to build up the resources that people need and to provide the opportunities to train faculty members and teachers in how to teach green chemistry in the classroom,” says Kirchhoff, the former assistant director of the Green Chemistry Institute.

The relative lack of teaching resources seems to be among the primary obstacles. As anyone in the movement will tell you, without resources available so that professors can easily substitute in greener labs to demonstrate the core chemical principles they teach, the compounding forces of inertia and insufficient time will slow any large-scale change. What's essential, advocates for green chemistry say, is that a large number of green labs and lecture guides be available, enabling professors to plop them in and teach some green chemistry as they continue teaching the topics they've always taught.

Yet, green chemistry is still relegated to “special topics boxes" at the end of the chapter in most chemistry textbooks. In an informal survey of textbook publishers at last fall’s ACS national meeting in San Francisco, Michael C. Cann, a professor of chemistry at the University of Scranton, evaluated the market’s offerings in terms of green chemistry coverage. Out of 141 books he examined, 33 included some form of green chemistry. “But most of them are simply supplemental materials,” Cann says. “Very few of them have any substantial amounts of green chemistry infused into them.”’

It’s worth noting though that while the resources might still be limited, they’re growing like all things green. The University of Oregon’s Julie Haack maintains an online database, Greener Educational Materials for Chemists, some collections of green undergraduate experiments are available and the Journal of Chemical Education includes a “Topics in Green Chemistry” feature on a regular basis that usually consists of lab experiments, says Kirchhoff, the editor for the feature.

Strong attendances at green chemistry symposia during national ACS meetings are also a promising sign, Kirchhoff says: “A number of presenters are people I’ve never met before – which is excellent because it means there are people out there doing work that we don’t know about.”

“For awhile, we were all talking to ourselves.”

'The Hope of Green Chemistry'

In those pockets where green chemistry is happening in the university laboratory, innovation and energy levels are high. Thomas Goodwin, a professor of chemistry at Hendrix, describes for instance adapting a reaction described in the Journal of Chemical Education. Unhappy with the use of toluene, a petrochemical solvent, as the literature called for, Goodwin and a student tried running the experiment without the solvent, just to see if it worked. It did.

Then, they decided to lower the temperature called for in the literature: Rather than running the reaction at 90 degrees Celsius, “We said, ‘Let’s just mix these two things together at room temperature -- and it also worked.” That was a particularly unusual reaction to have worked in that combination of circumstances, Goodwin conceded – “But we never would have tried these things” without a green ethos.

In Goodwin's courses, students have to write up the environmental implications of laboratory experiments in their notebooks, answering in their conclusion sections not only what they learned about the topic at hand, but also “what was green about the procedure, what was not green about the procedure and how,” Goodwin says, “could I improve it?”

Back at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Amy Cannon, an assistant professor, requires the students in her chemistry for non-majors course to design green experiments for eighth-graders as a service learning project. One group of students for instance designed a method of making ice cream, using human energy as opposed to electricity, to be included in a middle school unit on energy. Basically, Cannon says, students would put the ingredients along with some ice in a coffee can, and then roll and shake it to create their desired output – ice cream.

At Gordon College, organic chemistry students design a final green chemistry literacy project in which they either do outreach to local high schools or undertake a green research initiative. For example, Irv Levy, a professor of chemistry and chair of the department, is working with students to develop a green laboratory module that would test the eco-toxicity of common chemicals -- building upon the outgrowth of one of those SMEAGOL (Student Motivated Endeavors Advancing Green Organic Literacy) projects. The acronym is borrowed from Tolkien.

“The ultimate point of green chemistry is human health and the environment,” Levy says of the lab they're developing. Yet, “chemists are normally not trained in that field, which is toxicology.”

“We need to get it into the psyche of our future chemists, so that they view all chemistry as green. [So] they look at any chemistry and think, ‘How can we make this chemistry greener?’ It has to be a part of the thought process. If somebody doesn’t think about something, they’re never going to change their habits, they’re never going to change their ways,” says Cann of the University of Scranton.

“The hope of green chemistry,” says Hendrix’s Gron, “is that someday we’ll stop talking about it. That everyone will do it, that part of being an ethical chemist is that you consider the environmental consequences of your work.”


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