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Green Chemistry: The Nexus Blog

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By Dr. Love-Ese Chile, Founder and Technical Director, Regenerative Waste Labs


Since the industrial revolution, scientists have been innovating at a faster rate than ever before. These scientific discoveries and disruptions have been miracles for some, bringing wealth and prosperity. For others, they have been destructive, leading to environmental devastation and social inequality. As a young person, I developed a fascination and a passion for science but also recognized that the technological advancement that science brings is a double-edged sword. As I work towards constructing my career as a sustainable scientist, I seek out experiences that will ensure my knowledge will make a positive impact on our environment and communities.





Laying the Groundwork


For me, graduate school was spent diligently studying the synthesis and characterization of lignin-polylactide composites while also exploring the history of academic science and its roots in gender and race inequality. It soon became clear to me that in order to create an equitable, well-distributed, and regenerative society, sustainable science and green chemistry would need to take a leading role.


Primed and ready to integrate green chemistry into my research, I sought to engage with my peers, only to find there was not a strong sense of sustainability within my chemistry department. To challenge my colleagues and encourage collective learning, I started a Green Chemistry student group. The group was designed to support graduates and faculty in creating more sustainable labs by encouraging researchers to think carefully about solvent selections, waste management, energy consumption, and water use. The students also had opportunities to engage with members of the broader non-academic community to showcase the innovative green research that they were developing.


As I started to share these new ideas with people outside my discipline and outside academia, I quickly realized how inaccessible science is to people not part of this community. Seeking ways to create more connections between science and external communities, I organized a Science and Society Book Club, which encouraged graduate students to read science fiction then discuss how these books had shaped the views of society and the impact they had on the work of future scientists. Like the chicken and the egg, the group often wondered which came first, the idea or the innovation? If ideas can shape the world through the imaginations of scientists, authors, and artists, can we begin to imagine green futures fuelled by sustainable science? I left graduate school privileged with knowledge and expertise, and I was determined to use these powers for good by placing them in the context of broader society.


But first, rest.


Kids, Cups, and Chemistry


After my graduate school experience, I was exhausted. To recharge I needed to do anything but scientific research, but for the sake of my CV, I decided to keep one foot in something tangentially related. Fresh out of graduate school I worked two jobs; I was a barista at a bustling local coffee shop, and I dressed up as a Mad Scientist doing science experiments for kids’ birthday parties and after-school programs.


As a Mad Scientist, rather than just teaching kids about science, I showed them how wonderful, miraculous, and weird the world could be. Our experiments ranged from color changes and mini explosions, to goo and spring-powered toys. We made fruit-based paints, biodiesel, plastic from milk and so much more! I saw young eyes light up to what looked like magic but was explainable by science. I saw them consider possibilities they had never thought possible. I wanted to spark in adults the same energy and creativity of children learning new ideas and having joyful experiences.


During my time as a barista, I learned three key things: the thermodynamics of milk, how to make latte art, and the unfathomable amount of waste that is generated on a daily basis. A pivotal moment occurred when I realized I was unboxing new coffee cups, stacking them to give them out one by one, only to later remove the same stacks of the same cups from the garbage at the end of the day. Every shift I would encourage people to use the washable ceramic mugs, but few people would want them.


That is when I found myself thinking more deeply about waste management, single-use items, and the circular economy. I questioned why we spend so much time and energy to extract raw materials from the earth, processing them into products that are used once and then discarded in a landfill. It became apparent that the linear economy was vastly lacking; I began to imagine green futures where the value of our waste would be returned through a regenerative cycle.


With much motivation, I left the coffee shop to pursue a career as a Sustainable Plastics Consultant. It was my goal to support businesses and innovators in using bio-based and biodegradable materials and ensure that the items we use every day do not end up contaminating our environments.


But where to begin?


Scientist for Hire


New to the field of consulting, I first focused on networking and building a reputation as an expert in the field. I acquired a wealth of knowledge during graduate school and I wanted to share that with the people around me so they could start imagining green futures too. I delivered several well-attended public lectures on the challenges with conventional plastics and how compostable and bio-based materials may be able to solve some of these issues. Soon after, word spread, and I was invited to do a series of radio interviews. Environmental and community groups were excited to hear about these new innovations and the potential they had in reducing the negative impacts of plastic use. 


I continued to develop the strengths and skills I had acquired during graduate school by accessing research, analyzing the science, and disseminating meaningful results and information. I wrote and performed slam poems about plastic waste, I authored a series of whitepapers, and I gave presentations for local and regional policymakers. Before long, I secured my first contract to design a research program focused on the development of new waste management technologies that would accelerate the biodegradation of compostable plastics.


Each opportunity led to the next and I quickly became well-known as an accessible expert in my field. People who heard me on the radio or saw one of my presentations started reaching out to me. I was asked to participate in a stakeholder engagement project for a local circular economy non-profit organization. This project focused on exploring how to enable the use and recovery of compostable plastics in Canada.


My network continued to funnel people with questions about biomaterials to me. Soon I had projects from companies who wanted information on the Canadian marketplace for compostable plastics, the sustainability considerations for bio-based plastics, and the landscape for waste management infrastructure for compostable plastics. My services were in high demand and with every new project I learned more and more about the challenges and opportunities in building a circular economy for biomaterials.


The more I read and talked to stakeholders, the more I realized that imagining green futures is one thing but constructing them is much more complicated.


Entrepreneurship to Enable the Circular Economy


Transitioning from a linear economy to a circular economy is not easy. All participants in the supply chain need to use systems thinking to assess how decisions made in one sector impact the work of businesses both upstream and downstream to them. Stakeholders who would not usually interact with each other need to develop strong communication channels and a culture shift is required so that businesses not only look out for the good of their own company, but also the good of the entire system.


Let’s look at the challenges that face the compostable plastics industry as an example. These products were designed to be made from renewable resources and to go into centralized compost facilities at the end of their use. To be sure of the sustainability and circularity of these products, a company must consider the beginning-of-life issues such as feedstock sustainability. Some feedstocks come from monoculture farming which has both environmental and societal impacts. Alternative feedstocks may come from waste biomass, however, using this “waste” may remove important nutrients from ecological cycles. End-of-life considerations also have to be explored: How quickly will the product degrade in composting facilities? Is there access to composting facilities and waste management infrastructure in the areas you are selling into? And does the resulting compost have toxic effects on soil and plants? Without broad collaboration and cooperation of farmers, resin producers, product manufacturers, brand owners, consumers, waste collectors, compost operators and policymakers, this circular system is not complete. In the early days of the industry, stakeholders did not seek inclusive and diverse participation during decision making and now this value chain is misaligned, and compostable plastics are not circulating properly. Missed opportunities and waning public support are currently plaguing the industry.


Though the compostable plastics industry and the biomaterials industry as a whole face many challenges, I see so many opportunities for sustainable innovation. With imagination, creativity, and hard work, we can craft new jobs and businesses to fill the gaps in the value chains and continue building green futures where biobased plastics and other materials play a pivotal role.


Armed with two years of consulting expertise in compostable plastics and with the backing of mentors and business partners, in January 2020 I incorporated my testing and research company, Regenerative Waste Labs.


At Regenerative Waste Labs, we work to turn ‘waste’ into a dirty word. We provide contract research and testing to support the development of truly sustainable biobased products. I am now in a position where I wear all the hats I acquired along my career pathway: business owner, salesperson, researcher, educator, and connector. I am grateful to be able to do what I love  ̶ running a green science lab that practices sustainable, safe, and benign science, engaging with voices that have a diversity of experiences, and working directly to co-create a sustainable and equitable future. The work to build the dream is not over, but with persistence and ingenuity, it can come true.


I hope my story inspires you to imagine where a green future might take you and shows you that it is possible to forge your own pathway to get there.

Hey, undergrads! Looking for some green chemistry activities for your ACS Student Chapter? Great news, we’ve got boatloads full of great activities that can even be done virtually. In particular, the green chemistry activities from past ACS Program-in-a-Box or Chemists Celebrate Earth Week (CCEW) events are perfect options to do virtually with your Chapter mates. Take a look at the green chemistry activities available for the following past ACS events:


  • The Evolving Periodic Table and the Future of Energy Storage
  • Voyage to Mars: Red Planet Chemistry
  • Riding the Wave of Green Chemistry: How to Enhance Awareness of Plastics in the Ocean


Another great option would be to watch a past green chemistry webinar and host a discussion. Here are a few of the latest ACS Webinars focused on green and sustainable chemistry:



For more ideas, you can also check out activities submitted by your peers from across the U.S. on our resources page.


Remember, in order to qualify as a green chemistry event, you need to have at least six members of your chapter participate, and be sure to include the specifics of how your activity incorporated green chemistry in your Chapter Report. Please be specific!  


One of the most common pitfalls we see in Chapter Reports is not being able to differentiate between green chemistry, sustainability and environmental chemistry. Not sure how to tell the difference? Here’s a quick rundown.

  • Sustainability is the broadest of these concepts and incorporates ideas that impact people, the planet and prosperity (i.e., the triple bottom line). There might be efforts that your Chapter pursues that are great sustainability efforts, but don’t necessarily relate to green chemistry practices, like a campus composting or recycling program.
  • Environmental chemistry is the study of chemistry in natural systems. This could be understanding chemistry at work in land, air and water systems. Therefore, an activity focusing on water quality would be more of an environmental chemistry project.
  • Finally, green chemistry is based on a set of chemistry design principles that aim to eliminate or minimize hazards and pollution and maximize resource efficiency, while designing systems holistically and using a life cycle thinking approach. Therefore, educational and outreach events that focus on these concepts are considered green chemistry activities.


Keeping this in mind, the following activities do NOT count as green chemistry activities:

  • Park, stream, road or other clean-ups
  • Recycling drive
  • Water monitoring
  • Earth Day celebration without green chemistry component specified
  • Any activity with only one member involved
  • Attending three talks by home university professors
  • General sustainability practices, (e.g. using biodegradable coffee filters)
  • Most movie screenings (especially when only linked to climate change without a chemistry context)
  • Outreach activities or demos with no green chemistry component


If you have questions, please feel free to reach out at any time ( We’re always happy to help with ideas and to serve as a sounding board for green chemistry activity planning.

By Jenny MacKellar, Program Manager, ACS Green Chemistry Institute, and Aurora Ginzburg, Education Specialist, ACS Green Chemistry Institute


Are you passionate about sustainability? Do you teach a foundational lower-division chemistry course? Are you looking for opportunities to network with other chemistry educators during this isolating time? What about a way to further engage your students and connect chemistry to important real-world issues? Well, now you have a chance!  ACS GCI has initiated a three-year project to develop chemistry education modules for undergraduate general and organic chemistry courses. We are looking for chemistry educators to help us develop and pilot these materials, and you will be compensated for your time and effort.


This year has made it more apparent than ever that there is a need for open-access, high-quality virtual teaching materials and a community of educators who can share their experience using such materials. In addition, these materials should be relevant and engaging to students, particularly if they are intended to be used exclusively in a virtual setting. The ACS Green Chemistry Institute is developing educational materials that connect fundamental chemistry concepts to sustainability issues, such as those articulated in the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, while using a systems thinking approach. These materials will be developed by teams of educators convened virtually and will cover both general and organic chemistry courses. Over the next two years, the teams will develop modules around fundamental chemistry topics that include the knowledge and skills necessary to practice green and sustainable chemistry. Placing foundational chemistry concepts in their relevant societal and environmental contexts is designed to help all students, including those who are not chemistry majors, find lower-division chemistry courses practical and important.


An overarching driver for this project is to develop materials that help students to construct their knowledge of chemistry in tandem with systems thinking skills so that they can ultimately use chemistry to address real-world problems. In our experience, many students are interested in sustainability but lack the ability to draw connections between fundamental chemical concepts such as bond strength, ion solubility, kinetics, etc. and real-world phenomena like PFAS contamination, algal blooms, and precious metal mining.


This project will build upon recent education transformation efforts that focus on students developing an integrated understanding of underlying concepts. Further, we will utilize existing green chemistry education materials when possible. For more information on the vision for this project, and how sustainability, green chemistry, and systems thinking all connect, we encourage you to check out our project webpage. In addition, we have the module rubric and our introductory webinar posted.


We have just opened up the online application for educators to fill out if they are interested in becoming module developers. Applications should only take 15 minutes to complete and are due by November 20, 2020. Module developers will work in small teams over the next two years to develop, pilot and revise a module on a general or organic chemistry topic. Module developers will be compensated and receive authorship credit for their contributions to the project. For more information about the module development teams, join us for a webinar on November 11 at 3 p.m. EST. We’ll be discussing the composition of the teams, the roles of the team members, timelines and how to use a systems thinking approach to the development of the modules.


We respect that everyone is very busy and these are incredibly challenging times, and we hope that the relatively long project-timeline and team layout will encourage educators to participate despite these challenges. We will always respect your time and other commitments and will do everything possible to work around busy schedules. In addition, we are going to intentionally incorporate activities and time to build a community with the group so that this can be a wonderful opportunity to form connections with other like-minded educators.


Feel free to reach out with any questions, suggestions or comments at

By David Constable, Ph.D., Scientific Director, ACS Green Chemistry Institute


12Say you’re in the market for a new article of clothing and you start searching on the internet for what’s available from retailers you have bought from in the past.  Maybe you want something that is classically stylish, maybe you don’t want it to go out of fashion quickly and want it to last more than one season, you think it will make you look great, the colors compliment you, and you think it will feel comfortable when you’re wearing it.   You decide to go ahead and purchase it.  If you’re like most people, you don’t give much thought about where the clothing originated from, who put it together, or how the cloth was made.   Again, if you’re like most people, you don’t think about what you’re going to do with the clothing after you’ve worn it for a while and decide that perhaps it is no longer suitable for you to continue wearing it, although you may have a history of donating your clothing to charity.  For the most part, we consume things somewhat mindlessly, especially in modern western societies. 


SDG 12, if we think about it for any length of time, forces us to think differently about consumption.  Exactly what is sustainable consumption and what does production that supports sustainable consumption look like?  The box below contains a few of the goal’s targets that are most applicable to chemistry and chemical production, and these give us some ideas about what might be required. 


SDG 12: Selected Targets


  • By 2030, achieve sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources.
  • By 2030, halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses.
  • By 2020, achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle, in accordance with agreed international frameworks, and significantly reduce their release to air, water and soil in order to minimize their adverse impacts on human health and the environment.
  • By 2030, substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse.
  • Encourage companies, especially large and transnational companies, to adopt sustainable practices and to integrate sustainability information into their reporting cycle.
  • By 2030, ensure that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature.



Hopefully, you see a few ideas that are familiar to you, like resource efficiency, reduced food waste, chemicals management and reduced emissions associated with chemicals throughout their life cycle, elements of the circular economy, increased recycling and reuse, etc.  It’s interesting to me that for the most part, the burden for sustainable consumption in these targets lies with companies, not with the ultimate consumer.  But is this the only place that responsibility for sustainable consumption resides?  Ultimately, producers and manufacturers are responding to a demand signal from consumers for things they can sell.  They certainly have an enormous responsibility to produce things in an environmentally responsible fashion thanks to 40 years or more of environmental legislation.  Can the same be said about sustainability?  That is, are companies operating in as sustainable a fashion as possible? Despite steps in the right direction, the global chemistry enterprise is operating a great distance away from what would be considered sustainable.  Many of the materials (the mass) that move through our economies, and the energy that is used to supply, maintain, use and dispose of these materials, are overwhelmingly produced from non-renewable and unsustainable resources. 


So what might more sustainable consumption and production look like? 


  • The way in which energy is being produced and distributed is certainly undergoing a transition to greater amounts of solar, wind and other renewable forms of energy, and the potential for more distributed generation is increasing. This transition is shifting impacts from CO2 production related to energy generation, to a range of impacts beyond CO2 production, and renewable energy is far from sustainable when looked at from a resource depletion or environmental impact perspective.  
  • Transportation is being disrupted toward electricity and electric vehicles, which possess many challenges for sustainable consumption related to batteries, rare earth elements, precious metals, advanced materials, coatings, etc. Transportation is also being disrupted to shared models and automation, which changes the existing models of consumption, ownership, and end-of-useful-life issues. 
  • Chemicals production could also become increasingly characterized by precision fermentation and be much more distributed to make use of local biomass sources.
  • Extensive automation and robotics will also profoundly change the need for new materials but also the nature of work in society. Increased smart technology, while enabling greater energy efficiency, will require greater use of a range of elements that are not currently being sustainably extracted, processed, and re-used.  Robotics and additive manufacturing may enable more production to be distributed differently, but this will require greater use of materials. 
  • A more biobased and circular economy will also require extensive innovation in food and biomass production, which has profound implications on energy, nitrogen, and phosphorous consumption.


Implicit in all these transitions is the need to employ greener and more sustainable chemistry and chemical technologies.  The history of technology development has been, however, rarely focused on sustainable development and clearly, this needs to change if we have any hope of moving towards more sustainable consumption and production.  Chemistry remains a central driving force in most areas of sustainable development and green and sustainable chemistry should be the way in which the world does its chemistry.     

By William F. Carroll, Jr., Chair, ACS Green Chemistry Institute Advisory Board


For many readers, the name Nina McClelland will not be familiar. Nina passed away at the age of 90 on August 16.  She had been an American Chemical Society activist for about 50 years prior to her passing, holding numerous committee and chair positions, including nine years on the ACS Board of Directors, of which three were spent as Chair of the Board.  Nina recruited me into ACS governance, leading to my time on the Board of Directors, my term as Chair and my term as ACS President.  I owe her a great personal debt.


But Nina was also a loud and staunch advocate for green chemistry.  She came to that from an unusual place:  The organization originally known as the National Sanitation Foundation, and now as just NSF International.  Nina was NSF President for many years.


NSF is a standards organization; that is, it organizes technical panels and comes to a consensus on rules of the road for various aspects of modern technical life.  Fire codes and electrical codes are examples of industrial standards.  NSF’s expertise traditionally was in sanitation, and especially in drinking water, wastewater and plumbing.  Today, their standards extend to personal care, animal care, home products and sustainability, as well.


For as long as I have known Nina, she has been passionate about the ability of standards to raise the quality and efficiency of modern life.  At the same time, she was a passionate advocate for chemistry, and particularly safer, forward-looking chemistry as a means to enable modern life.


Let’s talk a little about the ancient history of the Green Chemistry Institute.  In the 1990s, a man named Joe Breen played a major role at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in creating Design for the Environment and green chemistry, including the establishment of the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards in 1996.  When Joe retired from EPA he established a not-for-profit known as the Green Chemistry Institute with support and sweat equity from colleagues in industry, government, academe and the national labs.  In 1999, Joe Breen died.  After Joe’s passing, the future of the Green Chemistry Institute was at risk.


Enter Daryle Busch: ACS President-Elect, 1999 and President, 2000.  Professor Busch was an advocate of catalysis as a means to greener chemistry.  He saw an opportunity to advance the field, put the Green Chemistry Institute on a solid footing, and involve ACS in a venture looking to the future of chemistry.  He proposed to the ACS Board of Directors an alliance between GCI and ACS.  Nina, also on the Board, agreed enthusiastically.


And thus, GCI became allied with ACS.  That alliance has evolved over the past twenty years to where we find ourselves now: GCI is a part of the Division of Scientific Advancement of ACS, doing groundbreaking work on behalf of the field.  But none of this would have happened without the prime movers, Daryle Busch and Nina McClelland.


As an inaugural member of the Governing Board for GCI in her role as Chair of the ACS Board of Directors, Nina played a crucial role in raising awareness of green chemistry among her Board colleagues and across the Society.  She, along with Daryle Busch, articulated the importance of GCI in advancing sustainability across the chemistry enterprise.  Early on, Nina recognized that a major opportunity for GCI was to bring the green chemistry message to ACS members.


Green chemistry lost a true champion and friend with the passing of Dr. Nina McClelland.  For nearly two decades, she provided expert advice to GCI staff and Governing Board members.  Her passion for achieving sustainability through the application of green chemistry helped advance ACS’ vision of “Improving people’s lives through the transforming power of chemistry.”  Her wisdom and common sense will be missed by all those whose paths she crossed.  Her legacy of the Green Chemistry Institute as a part of ACS will continue to shape science and our Society well into the future.




By Prof. Jonas Baltrusaitis, Ph.D., Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Lehigh University, and Awardee of the 2020 ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering Lectureship


Jonas BaltrusaitisIn spite of the pandemic, the world is experiencing unprecedented economic growth together with an increasing population, requiring relentless use of our natural resources, such as air, water, hydrocarbons and other common nutrients. For this reason, sustainable resource management and use, as well as the utilization of waste, are necessary in order to minimize significant negative environmental impacts. In an inextricably-linked landscape of energy and nutrients, one must weigh factors such as availability and price, as well as the effects of their extraction on the environment in general, and climate change in particular. Flexible fundamental, as well as engineering, solutions, currently not quite available, are needed in order to ensure our continuing prosperous existence. 


As a precautious boy growing up in an industrialized city in Lithuania, I was always wondering about the giant plume of white steam coming out of the large fertilizer-producing tower exhaust.  My childhood friends would often advise me that said fertilizers are made by utilizing air, which always made me wonder about the underlying basics of such a process.  Little did I know, I would have a chance to have first-hand experience in designing, controlling and, later, improving fertilizer production technologies. 


My journey in green and sustainable chemistry started when I joined the workforce, right after graduating with a Masters in Chemical Engineering degree. As a junior process engineer, I was tasked with relocating a large fertilizer production facility across Europe.  The success of the biggest project of my early career was largely based on my empirical understanding of exothermal reaction design and control, evaporation, distillation, granulation and other core chemical engineering principles acquired during my undergraduate years. 


The overall experience, however, increased my interest in the fundamentals of nitrogen and carbon surface chemistry and catalysis.  For this reason, I left the industry and obtained my Ph.D. in physical chemistry with Prof. Vicki Grassian at the University of Iowa.  Ever since I have worn two hats—one of the chemical engineer and one of the chemist—and I would not have it any other way.  While being an engineer helps me to conceptualize problems of societal significance and devise practical solutions, the skills of a chemist allow me to do this using scientific principles.  A case in point is my recent work on mechanochemical synthesis of urea cocrystals to create multifunctional nutrient containing fertilizer materials.  Milling, often utilized on a small scale in organic synthesis, proved to be an efficient and scalable process that afforded 100% urea conversion into complex ionic cocrystals, previously synthesized using solution crystallization methods.


My particular journey has made me a poster child of STEM—due to my lifelong practical and educational experience in both fundamental sciences, chemical engineering science, and as a practicing chemical engineer. However, it was not premeditated or systematically pursued, and was instead a result of personal exploration. In retrospect, I wish that I had been encouraged to this end at the beginning of my career. Needless to say, with my own students, I encourage them to engage in interdisciplinary research and practical hands-on experience.


As a capstone process design instructor at Lehigh University, I am often a mediator between the industry and academia, and I would not have it any other way.  My chemical engineering education experience revolves around the so-called Active Learning concept, where students are engaged in a controlled combination of reading, writing, discussion and problem-solving to promote analytical understanding of the class content.  Based on Edgar Dale (Audio-Visual Methods in Technology, Holt, Rinehart and Winston), we only remember 10% of what we read and 20% of what we hear. About 50% of visual information is retained after two weeks, compared to 70% of what we say and 90% of what we both say and do.  As such, I will always encourage meaningful and impactful ways of evolving chemical engineering education that includes the engagement of practicing engineers.



By Feng Wang, Ph.D., Professor of Physical Chemistry, Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics (CAS) and Awardee of 2020 ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering Lectureship, and Ning Li, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Associate, Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics (CAS)


Feng WangChemistry innovations have long offered us commodities and products that benefit our daily life tremendously. Nowadays, the design of a new chemical (engineering) process emphasizes not only the efficiency of inherent functions but also green performance, such as environmental benignness and sustainability. It is my great fortune to anchor my research career in the sustainable hydrocarbon world by implementing green catalysis for the sake of renewable chemicals, fuels, and materials. I am convinced that green chemistry and catalysis will bring us a brighter future. Of course, it is impossible to reach the ultimate goal in one stroke. As I look back to what I have gone through, it’s clear our understanding of green biorefinery keeps growing, but certain ambiguities remain. Continuous endeavors will be devoted to this promising area and I look forward to advancing technologies and knowledge of biomass valorization and biorefinery in a green manner.


I started to realize the negative environmental impacts instigated by the vast consumption of depleting fossil resources when I was a graduate student. My Ph.D. project was the efficient catalysis of fossil products using metal oxides and metal nanoparticles as catalysts. When I initiated my research group at Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics (DICP), I decided to step forward to the concept of biorefinery (i.e., utilizing the toolbox available in oil refining to solve the issues in renewable biomass valorization for fuels and value-added products). The great abundance and availability of biomass was fascinating, while I soon realized it was also quite challenging due to the complexity of biomass components (e.g., lignin, carbohydrates, bio-lipids), all of which bear distinct chemical structures.


I decided to narrow down my first target to lignin. It was stereotypically recognized as a waste from the pulp industry and was poorly destined for calcination. Instead of using homogenous acid or base catalysts in pulping processes which resulted in value-deficient lignin fractions, I adopted a recyclable catalyst (heterogeneous and non-precious nickel catalysts) to selectively break down the lignin fragments in methanol. Monophenols were harvested in high yields and the residual cellulose pulps (free of lignin) were ready for biochemical processing1. This study opens a new avenue to utilize lignin-based phenols as platform chemicals for fuels, aromatic chemicals, and pharmaceutical molecules, and has come into being a widely used lignin conversion strategy, i.e. lignin first.


While it was exciting to implement my preliminary green idea by recyclable and cheap catalysts, I knew greener improvements would be demanded in the value-addition of lignin fractions. Lignin depolymerization via a thermochemical process inevitably suffers from high-energy consumption. It would be desirable to depolymerize lignin under mild conditions. Since biomass moieties (including lignin) are derived from organic matter photosynthesized at ambient temperature under light illumination, what if catalytic biomass conversion occurs using light as an energy source?


Photocatalytic reactions, which are non-toxic and energy-efficient, fulfill multiple green chemistry principles, with the added benefit of being inexpensive. Incorporating photocatalysis into biomass conversion is a milestone in my research journey toward a sustainable biorefinery. I am lucky because the catalysts I played with in my Ph.D. projects (such as metal oxides and metal sulfides) exhibit certain photocatalytic performance. After screening and tuning the defects and surface structures of heterogeneous catalysts, a couple of efficient candidates (such as ZnIn2S4, CuOx/ceria/TiO2) emerged to be effective in catalytic cleavage of C−C and C−O bonds between lignin units, once exposed to visible or UV lights2-3.


Tackling carbohydrate photocatalysis is on my bucket list for a sustainable biorefinery. Carbohydrates (such as cellulose and hemicellulose) embody the most abundant renewable resources, co-existing with lignin in lignocellulosic biomass. In our journey toward a sustainable biorefinery, it is imperative to validate the efficient conversion of carbohydrates and their derivatives to green fuels and chemicals. Inspired by the solar-driven water-splitting reactions for H2 production, we developed a Ru-doped ZnIn2S4 catalyst for the coproduction of H2 and diesel fuel precursors from carbohydrate-derived methylfurans via acceptorless dehydrogenative C−C coupling4. Subsequent hydrodeoxygenation reactions yielded the diesel fuels comprising straight- and branched-chain alkanes. To integrate the biorefinery processes into the existing petrochemical-fuel chain, bio-methanol is designed as a clean liquid energy carrier and a pivotal chemical for the synthesis of olefins and aromatics. In contrast to thermochemical reforming at harsh conditions (over 300 °C), we discovered the Cu-dispersed titanium oxide nanorods were effective for photo-splitting of sugars and bio-derived polyols to methanol at room temperature5.


As we strive to knock down the complexity in biomass compositions, my interest extends to the photocatalytic bio-lipid conversion for sustainable fuels. Capturing the subtle changes of radical intermediates on the photocatalyst surface, we found a photocatalytic decarboxylation route to efficiently upgrade bio-derived fatty acids into long-chain alkanes by Pt/TiO2 as a robust and recyclable catalyst under mild conditions (ambient temperature with hydrogen gas pressure no more than 2 atm)6. Compared to the traditional hydrodeoxygenation and hydrodecarboxylation processes, the photocatalytic decarboxylation is highlighted for its low energy and H2 consumption. 


On my journey towards sustainable valorization of biomass, emphases have been given to validating various renewable feedstocks and digging into the fundamental mechanism of green catalysis. However, new challenges keep emerging as our awareness in this field grows. For example, our photocatalytic decarboxylation process for biodiesel turned out to be less competitive than the current fossil-based process in the life-cycle assessment. Continuous research efforts will be needed for process optimization and catalyst design. To build a sustainable world, block polymers and functional materials must be developed from biomass. This underexplored domain will be of great interest to venture on. 


I am an optimist in green chemistry and catalysis. Green is the color of the natural environment, but also signifies the youth and prosperity of this research area. Compared to the traditional chemical (engineering) processes, there are enormous opportunities in this green area. Aiming at a bright future of sustainable biorefinery, I am in. And you are more than welcome to join us.



  1. Qi Song, Feng Wang, Jiaying Cai, Yehong Wang, Junjie Zhang, Weiqiang Yu, Jie Xu. Lignin depolymerization (LDP) in alcohol over nickel-based catalysts via a fragmentation-hydrogenolysis process. Energy Environ. Sci., 2013, 6 (3), 994-1007.
  2. Tingting Hou, Nengchao Luo, Hongji Li, Marc Heggen, Jianmin Lu, Yehong Wang, Feng Wang. Yin and yang dual characters of cuox clusters for c–c bond oxidation driven by visible light. ACS Catalysis, 2017, 7 (6), 3850-3859.
  3. Nengchao Luo, Min Wang, Hongji Li, Jian Zhang, Tingting Hou, Haijun Chen, Xiaochen Zhang, Jianmin Lu, Feng Wang. Visible-light-driven self-hydrogen transfer hydrogenolysis of lignin models and extracts into phenolic products. ACS Catalysis, 2017, 7 (7), 4571-4580.
  4. Nengchao Luo, Tiziano Montini, Jian Zhang, Paolo Fornasiero, Emiliano Fonda, Tingting Hou, Wei Nie, Jianmin Lu, Junxue Liu, Marc Heggen, Long Lin, Changtong Ma, Min Wang, Fengtao Fan, Shengye Jin, Feng Wang. Visible-light-driven coproduction of diesel precursors and hydrogen from lignocellulose-derived methylfurans. Nat. Energy, 2019, 4 (7), 575-584.
  5. Min Wang, Meijiang Liu, Jianmin Lu, Feng Wang, Min Wang, Meijiang Liu. Photo splitting of bio-polyols and sugars to methanol and syngas. Nat Commun, 2020, 11 (1), 1083.
  6. Zhipeng Huang, Zhitong Zhao, Chaofeng Zhang, Jianmin Lu, Huifang Liu, Nengchao Luo, Jian Zhang, Feng Wang. Enhanced photocatalytic alkane production from fatty acid decarboxylation via inhibition of radical oligomerization. Nat. Catal., 2020, 3 (2), 170-178.


By Nakisha Mark Ph.D. candidate, The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus


Often when we think of green chemistry, focus is placed on the results, such as greater sustainability, safer processes or creating environmentally-friendly products. However, what about the strategy to achieve these results? I believe that strategic placement of research goals and/or projects to create value from green chemistry is as important as the specific green outcomes we desire. This is even more important in small island developing states (SIDS), where issues of climate change, social sustainability, economic prosperity and food security represent current and real challenges. Due to the unique challenges in our region, implementation of SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound) principles and approaches are critical to achieving research goals and have been used for focusing research in support of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


Green chemistry has been gaining momentum in the Caribbean region in many sectors, especially in academia. Caribbean chemists are cognizant of the unique and supportive role of green chemistry research and innovation to the SDGs, and are developing actors in research across the regional university, The University of the West Indies (UWI). Therefore, to meet the SDGs through green chemistry, the strategies utilized must be SMART, which can lead to more opportunities for the fulfilment of the targeted SDGs.


What is interesting is that even with depressed economies, non-ideal research infrastructure and relatively low numbers of researchers currently in the field of green chemistry, more and more chemists are leaning towards green chemistry. For instance, materials science has a high minimum investment threshold due to the high cost of specialist instrumentation, which puts SIDS at a significant disadvantage in terms of supporting infrastructure. Many in this area of research have been pushed to alter synthesis techniques to meet specific research goals due to limited access to resources. These challenges have afforded groups such as Dr. Forde’s research group at UWI, St. Augustine Campus to become creative in their research activities, which has resulted in the adaptation of convergent research.



Convergent research is about closely matching research projects around a central theme so that projects are built from each other to develop a deeper overall understanding. It is very advantageous as it alleviates societal problems, which aids in achieving the SDGs. The research students of the Forde research group specialize in green heterogeneous catalysis, and the main focus of the group’s research is valorization of biomass as an enabler of sustainable and high-value agriculture in support of regional food-energy-security goals. More specifically, topics such as aqueous phase hydrogenation and oxidation of bio-derived compounds are being explored using highly selective recyclable solid nanoparticle catalysts that are created in-house. Of course, all of the starting materials can be easily derived from waste and non-food biomass, but they are going a step further to implement photocatalytic protocols for their reactions in efforts to create truly sustainable chemical processes. Hence, the focal point is built on SDGs 7, 9, 11 and 13 directly but also intersects SDGs 1, 2, 8, 12 and 15 (see figure 1).


Figure 1: U.N. Sustainable Development Goals


These synergies and intersections add real value to research and also ease the transition to actionable outcomes for varying sectors. What’s even more important is that the graduate researchers understand, from the onset, the impact of their laboratory experiments and therefore become influencers for green chemistry.  This last asset is critical to the mission of green chemists, i.e., to popularize the method of thinking and the outcomes of green chemistry to diverse audiences. This helps those external to the green chemistry catalysis sphere to get a better understanding of green chemistry to the extent where they want to apply the 12 principles of green chemistry in their own activities.


Recognizing that green chemistry is multi-disciplinary, many other researchers are very invested in creating changes and contributing to the SDGs. At UWI, Cave Hill Campus, Dr. Holder and his team are investigating, understanding and utilizing microbial biochemistry for the sustainable production of fuel, and other biological resources, to meet our energy needs. Their research plays a huge role in managing sustainable ecosystems as well as developing and maintaining the bio-economy, therefore contributing to SDGs 2, 7, 8, 13, 14 and 15 (see figure 1).



Dr. Nikolai Holder alongside his team of research students.


The Anaerobic Digester System at Cave Hill campus, which is utilized by Dr. Holder and his team. The system uses grass and leaves from the landscaping waste on campus to produce biogas, which powers the bunsen burners in the laboratories.


At the St. Augustine Campus, the students of Dr. Taylor’s research group explore novel advanced functional materials towards utilization in a range of modern technologically important applications. Some of the applications are improving the efficiency of solar cells and thermo/chemosensors for the sensing of dangerous or unwanted metal ions implicated in environmental contamination, thus fulfilling SDGs 7 and 9 (see figure 1).

Dr. Richard Taylor (left) alongside graduate researcher Reco Phillips and Dr. Wilson Sue Chee Ming (PhD. graduate of Dr. Taylor) analyzing data from synchrotron X-ray diffraction at the National Synchrotron Light Source-II.


The students on the research team of Drs. Beckles and Wyse-Mason are focused on the characterization of environmental contamination in the local environment, as well as the application of alternative fuels, in particular biodiesel, produced from waste cooking oil feedstock. Their studies on local contamination aim to reduce pollution in the air as well as in the soil of impacted areas including those connecting to landfills and other polluted areas, thereby fulfilling SDGs 6 and 7 (see figure 1).    


Another researcher, Ms. Aiken, who is affiliated with the Mona Campus of the UWI and the Scientific Research Council, is actively addressing SDG 2 (see figure 1) through her research of the capitalization of post-harvest losses of cassava leaves as a protein source for human diets


The diverse approaches to meeting the U.N. SDGs demonstrated in the region indicate the need for collaboration. There have been multidisciplinary collaborations across sectors, such as agriculture, and across international institutions, such as with Brookhaven National Laboratory. These collaborations have been instrumental in overcoming some of the challenges in research infrastructure such as in the area of material science. Such collaborations can be viewed as the fulfillment of SDG17-partnerships for the goals.


Acknowledging the goal of green chemistry is to sustain life, the highlighted challenges of the Caribbean region have only served to allow researchers to seek the hidden opportunities within these challenges. This mindset allows us to implement SMART green chemistry to contribute to the fulfilment of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

By Carl Maxwell, Manager, Government Affairs, Office of External Affairs and Communication


In July, both the House of Representatives and the Senate each passed the Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act, bringing it much closer to becoming law.  The measure was added to a major defense measure.  The National Defense Authorization Act (S.1790/H.R.2500) is a massive bill which provides guidance to our nation’s military and Pentagon in ways large and small.  It is passed by Congress annually, and is considered one of the only “must pass” bills each year, along with keeping the government funded.  


The Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act (S.999/H.R.2051) is comprehensive legislation creating an interagency taskforce to oversee and direct investment in sustainable chemistry across the federal government. It would include leading agencies such as the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, as well as other agencies.  In addition to creating a national roadmap for boosting research and development in sustainable chemistry, it would authorize public-private partnerships to assist bringing innovative technologies to market. Congress has also asked federal agencies to look at their current research portfolios to help identify where lawmakers should invest in the future.


The House separately passed similar chemistry legislation in 2019, following hearings by Congress, and a major Senate Committee also passed a version in December of 2019, but this represents the first time this legislation has passed both houses of Congress.  The two different versions of the aforementioned defense bill will need to go to conference, where a final version must be negotiated, but ACS staff have received indications from Congressional sources that the sustainable chemistry provisions are likely to remain in the bill.


In concert with this legislation, ACS worked closely with allies in the House of Representatives to boost sustainable chemistry in a wide array of other legislation.  ACS included language sponsored by key members of Congress in the Solar Energy Research and Development Act, the ARPA-E Reauthorization Act, and the Clean Industrial Technology Act directing agencies to focus research efforts on boosting sustainable and green chemistry.  All three passed the House of Representatives in September 2020, and ACS staff are pushing the Senate to take up their consideration. Moreover, ACS worked with industry partners to include a pilot program at the Department of Energy to facilitate technology transfer of late stage sustainable chemistry research, which was ultimately included in House appropriations report language.


The ACS promotes public policies that advance the chemistry enterprise and its practitioners. One of our four focus areas is Sustainability and the Environment. To find out more about advocacy at the ACS and how you can get involved visit:

Eight research groups benefited from the latest round of funding from the ACS Green Chemistry Institute Pharmaceutical Roundtable (ACS GCIPR), including two international groups.  Funded research projects cover a variety of topics, including membrane separations, greener peptides and oligonucleotides synthesis, chemistry in water, electrochemistry, photochemistry and biocatalysis. The ACS GCIPR has given more than $2 million in green chemistry research funding since its inception. New requests for proposals are announced each spring. To find out more about the program, please visit:


The 2020 ACS GCIPR research grantees are:



Kamalesh K. Sirkar, Ph.D., (pictured left) Distinguished Professor of Chemical & Materials Engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, was awarded $50,000 for his research titled, “Develop membranes for pressure-driven separation of solutes and solvents in the 50-600 Da range from API synthesis mixtures”. This research was selected to further the goals of the Roundtable in advancing membrane technologies as an alternative to separations in continuous manufacturing.







Profs. Tristan Lambert, Ph.D., (pictured left) and Phillip Milner, Ph.D., (pictured right) of Cornell University’s chemistry & chemical biology department have been awarded $50,000 for their research titled, “Bioinspired Metal-Organic Frameworks as Heterogeneous Catalysts for Peptide Synthesis”. This research supports the Roundtable’s medium-size molecules team in developing strategies to enhance the greenness of peptide and peptide conjugate synthesis.




Pasi Virta, Ph.D., (pictured left) professor of bio-organics at the University of Turku, Finland has been awarded $50,000 for his research titled, “Improved synthesis of nucleotide blockmers using a precipitative soluble”. This research addresses the Roundtable’s goal to optimize oligonucleotide technology and address the environmental challenge of current oligonucleotide manufacturing.










Martin AnderssonDaniel J. WeixThe Roundtable has recently identified chemistry in water as a topic of interest and is targeting grants to advance this area of research. More specifically, the Roundtable seeks to increase the utility of surfactant-based chemistry in water by overcoming practical and engineering barriers. Responding to this call, Prof. Daniel J. Weix, Ph.D., (pictured right) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was awarded $50,000 for his research titled, “Metal-Mediated Electrochemistry: A new frontier for surfactants”. Additionally, Prof. Martin Andersson, Ph.D., (pictured left) from the Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), has been awarded $25,000 for his research titled, “Developing New Surfactants for Easy Separation”.


Ignition Grant Winners


Every year the Roundtable awards “ignition” grants to spur novel and innovative ideas that have the potential to provide sustainable solutions to chemistry and engineering problems relevant to the pharmaceutical industry from discovery to manufacturing. Each grantee receives $25,000 in seed funding to obtain preliminary results that may then be used by the researchers to help apply for funding from traditional funding agencies. From a large field of nominations, the winners are:



Matt HostetlerProf. Matthew A. Hostetler, Ph.D., (pictured left) an assistant professor of chemistry at Marshall University has been awarded $25,000 for his research titled, “Cups: An Atom efficient and low-waste producing method of inverse solid-phase peptide synthesis”.


Tehshik P. Yoon, Ph.D., (pictured right) professor of chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been awarded $25,000 for his research titled, “Oxidative C–N Cross-Coupling Enabled by Iron Photochemistry”.             





Soumitra Athavale, Ph.D., (pictured left) post-doctoral scholar, and Frances H. Arnold, Ph.D., (pictured right) Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Biochemistry and Bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology, have been awarded $25,000 for their research titled, “Biocatalytic C-H bond Functionalization for the Synthesis of Enantioenriched Amines and Amides”.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will celebrate its 50th anniversary on December 2. Established during the Nixon administration, the Agency has a simple, yet powerful, mission, “To protect human health and the environment.” Over the past half century, EPA has taken numerous actions that have helped improve human health and the environment, such as setting air quality standards, reducing the amount of lead in gasoline, and phasing out chlorofluorocarbons.


In 1990, the Pollution Prevention Act was signed into law by President George Bush. In enacting this law, Congress declared that it was “the National policy of the United States that pollution should be prevented or reduced at the source whenever feasible…” This Act shifted the focus from waste management and pollution control to source reduction. The Pollution Prevention Act laid the groundwork for EPA to establish its Green Chemistry Program in the mid-1990s.


The American Chemical Society (ACS) has collaborated with the EPA on its green chemistry initiatives almost from the beginning. Cooperative agreements between the two organizations supported the development of educational resources, including a lab manual, case studies, and a video. Most notably, EPA and ACS work together to recognize advances in green chemistry through the Green Chemistry Challenge Awards, which were first awarded in 1996. More than 120 academic researchers, large corporations, small businesses, and government labs have been honored since the inception of the awards. These award-winning technologies have eliminated the use or generation of millions of pounds of hazardous chemicals and conserved billions of gallons of water and trillions of BTUs of energy. Applications for the 2021 awards are due by December 4, and the nomination package is available on the EPA website.   


EPA’s green chemistry activities go beyond the awards program. The annual Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2021, was first organized by EPA in 1997. EPA convened the nascent community at the conference during the early years of green chemistry, helping to build momentum for practicing chemistry in a greener, more sustainable way. EPA continues to be actively engaged with the conference, sharing information on the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) with attendees and highlighting the Pollution Prevention (P2) search tool within TRI.


The ACS Green Chemistry Institute congratulates the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on this milestone anniversary. While much has been accomplished over the past 50 years, applying science to solve global sustainability challenges lies ahead in the next 50 years. We look forward to continuing our collaborative efforts with EPA to ensure a more sustainable society.


Mary Kirchhoff, Ph.D.
Director, ACS Green Chemistry Institute
EVP, Scientific Advancement

By: Sarah York & MaryKay Orgill, University of Nevada, Las Vegas


The start of a new school year is always an exciting time. Campus is restored and polished. First-year students are nervous and bursting with energy. Upper-class students and faculty seem refreshed. It’s a time of renewal, a time of excitement, and a time for new friendships and new connections. It’s something we look forward to every year. For many of us, however, this year’s Back to School will look very different than it has in the past.


Instead of pushing our way through crowded pathways across campus to get to our next classes, we might be shuffling down the hallways in our own homes. Instead of engaging in lively discussions with colleagues around campus, we might be having conversations with ourselves while social distancing. The lecture hall full of 200 eager faces will be replaced with a screen of muted squares. From within the safety of our homes, we will grapple not just with teaching and learning chemistry, but with trying to understand the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and its impact on worldwide social, political, and economic climates.


This is a complex time for the world, and it is a complex time for our students. How do we, as instructors, help our students make sense of the complexity they see each day? How do we keep them engaged in learning chemistry when there are so many distractions outside the classroom? How do we help them form meaningful connections in a time when we must connect at a distance? How do we empower our students to succeed in this complex world?


Systems Thinking


While there is clearly not any one solution that will solve all of the problems that we or our students will face this school year, recent calls for the integration of systems thinking into chemistry education seem timely. Systems thinking is “an approach for examining and addressing complex behaviors and phenomena from a holistic perspective.” In a recent publication, we argued that systems thinking is a tool for making sense of complex chemical phenomena; but it is just as much a tool for making sense of any complex system, phenomenon, or problem, including those we are encountering in this unique year.


Research suggests that systems thinking creates an environment for interdisciplinary learning and understanding, allowing students to make connections between concepts and between disciplines. This type of thinking allows students to learn content more deeply and more conceptually, while engaging in a number of important cognitive skills (Table 1). Importantly, proponents of systems thinking claim that this approach develops students’ problem solving and critical thinking skills, while empowering them with the knowledge required to effect change in complex systems—skills and abilities that seem absolutely essential in today’s world.


With benefits such as these, it is not surprising that systems thinking would be the focus of two symposia at the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute’s® 2020 Green Chemistry & Engineering Virtual Conference and the December 2019 special issue of the Journal of Chemical Education. The benefits of systems thinking are not only cognitive, though. Systems thinking has been shown to increase students’ motivation, engagement, and participation. Those of us who taught through the abrupt transition to remote instruction earlier this spring have no doubt heard students comment that they felt unmotivated and disconnected from the content, their peers, and their instructors during this time. What if a systems thinking approach could help our students feel more engaged and more motivated, even in a remote teaching and learning environment?



Table 1. ChEMIST Table: Characteristics Essential for Designing or Modifying Instruction

for a Systems Thinking Approach

(Reproduced with permission. 2020 American Chemical Society.)

A systems thinker

in chemistry education should…

                                                         Systems Thinking Skills*

Less Holistic………………………………………………………………………………………More Holistic

More Analytical/Elaborative…………………………………………………………...Less Analytical/Elaborative

Recognize a system as a whole, not just as a collection of parts

Identify the individual components and processes within a system

Examine the organization of components within the system

Examine a system as a unified whole

Examine the relationships between the parts of a system, and how those interconnections lead to cyclic system behaviors

Identify the ways in which components of a system are connected

Examine positive and negative feedback loops within a system

Identify and explain the causes of cyclic behaviors within a system

Identify variables that cause system behaviors, including unique system-level emergent behaviors

Identify the multiple variables that influence a given system-level behavior; Consider the potential effects of stochastic and “hidden” processes on the system-level behavior


Examine the relative, potentially nonlinear, effects that multiple identified variables have on a given system-level behavior

Identify, examine, and explain (to the extent possible) emergent system-level behaviors

Examine how system behaviors changes over time

Identify system-level behaviors that change over time

Describe how a given system-level behavior change over time

Use system-level behavior-over-time trends under one set of conditions to make predictions about system-level behavior-over-time trends under another set of conditions

Identify interactions between a system and its environment, including the human components of the environment

Identify and describe system boundaries

Consider possible effects of a system’s environment on the system’s behaviors; Consider how the system under study might be a component of and contribute to the behaviors of a larger system

Consider the role of human action on current and future system-level behaviors

* An understanding of complex systems requires both an understanding of the system as a whole and of the components of the system. “Holistic” refers to skills that focus primarily on the system as a whole. “Analytical/Elaborative” refers to skills that primarily focus on the components of a system—not as individual, disaggregated parts---but within the context of the system as a whole. Research suggests that students will benefit the most from systems thinking activities that include both holistic and analytical/elaborative skills.


Systems Thinking Implementation


The current challenge is to envision how a systems thinking approach might be implemented in a remote or virtual chemistry classroom environment. Many of the successful in-person implementations of systems thinking approaches in other STEM disciplines have involved the use of computer simulations. Thus, we believe that a systems thinking approach in chemistry education might be achieved in a remote or virtual environment through the use of online simulations of chemical phenomena.


Many such interactive simulations are readily available online (for example, those provided on the PhET Interactive Simulations website); and most remote learning students will have access to devices that can access these simulations. Instructors can leverage these resources to design systems thinking activities that can be implemented in either remote or in-person chemistry teaching and learning environments. In the Supporting Information for our recent publication, we have provided a discussion of how an instructor might go about designing such an activity.


The start of each school year is an opportunity for renewal and change. Why not take advantage of this time to try a new approach—a systems thinking approach—to motivate students, to engage students, and to help students learn the skills they need to be powerful agents of change in the complex world in which we live?


From J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2013, 135, 2357-67

Reprinted with permission from Hoover, J.M.; Ryland, B.L.; Stahl, S.S.  J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2013, 135, 2357-67 Copyright (2013) American Chemical Society


By Ian Mallov, Ph.D., Research Chemist with Inkbox Ink


Here’s a piece of trivia for you: which of the 12 principles of green chemistry has an entire high-impact American Chemical Society (ACS) journal and a lectureship devoted to it?


If you answered principle #9, catalysis, you answered correctly!


In 2011, ACS launched ACS Catalysis, and with it, the ACS Catalysis Lectureship to recognize innovators of this 9th principle in all its myriad forms.


Catalysis is inextricably linked with green chemistry principles 1 and 2: prevention of waste and atom economy. Using a catalyst can often facilitate the choice of a much more atom-economical reactant, reducing waste generated, and present alternatives to toxic or resource-intensive reagents. This is perhaps best exemplified in the simplest redox chemistry: using H2 as a reductant, or O2 as an oxidant.


It is fitting that this past February, the 9th winner of the lectureship honouring advancers of this 9th principle of green chemistry was announced as Professor Shannon Stahl from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Professor Stahl and his research team were recognized largely for their contributions to oxidation processes using O2 as terminal oxidant, for which Stahl also won a Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award in 2014.



Chemical Life Cycle and the Use of Oxidation


“Oxidation reactions are often problematic from a “green” perspective because the reagents often are intrinsically non-green owing to the byproducts they generate,” Stahl says.


Oxidation is, of course, key to a multitude of chemistries at every stage of a chemical life cycle. Every oxygen-containing bulk chemical derived from a petro-feedstock has undergone oxidation. Oxidation is a fundamental tool in fine-tuning chemical structures for use in pharma or materials applications. And, living on earth under our 21% oxygen atmosphere, oxidative degradation mechanisms are ubiquitous.


The contributions of Professor Stahl’s team are, so far, primarily applicable in the middle stages of this chemical life cycle.


To present a classic dilemma: you want to oxidize an alcohol functionality on your molecule to a ketone or aldehyde. As your terminal oxidant, you have several choices commonly available in your organic chemists’ toolbox: classic stoichiometric reagents like chromates and manganates; dimethylsulfoxide via Swern or Parikh-Doering methods; hypervalent iodine reagents. Or, you can use catalytic methods using metals, nitroxyl radicals, or enzymes as catalysts. Some of these use air as terminal oxidant.


The worst of the stoichiometric oxidants both from environmental impact and worker safety perspectives – chromates – are still widely used and taught despite dangers that outweigh their benefits. Hexavalent chromate ions are isostructural to sulfate and phosphate ions. Inside your body, they Trojan-horse their way through sulfate channels into cells, get reduced to trivalent chromium, and complex nucleic acids and proteins, causing mutations that manifest as toxic or cancerous cells.


Kinetic challenges of oxidations often result in the use of strong acids at high concentrations, resulting in dangerous waste that is difficult and resource-intensive to dispose. O2 gas at explosive concentrations, or, where halogenation is desired, toxic chlorine or fluorine gas, pose their own dangers. Literature comparing life cycles of various oxidation agents is scant, but comparing many of these traditional, harsh reagents to, say, air as terminal oxidant offers a stark contrast.


Stahl’s Oxidation Method


Of course, it’s not this simple. However, the thrust of many of Stahl’s oxidation methods is towards using air as a reagent. The aim is for safe, robust, easy and efficient reactions.


A medicinal chemist friend of mine working for a west coast pharmaceutical company told me he actually prefers stoichiometric reagents – “we want something benchtop and weighable” on a small scale, he said. “But I like that there are admixtures (of Stahl’s catalysts) available through MilliporeSigma.”


Much of Stahl’s group’s most widely applied chemistry using air also relies on nitroxyl radical species as oxidants – TEMPO or ABNO. Radicals are often difficult to control, and many are NMR-silent, making detection of leftovers contaminating your end product difficult.


But TEMPO – 2,2,6,6-tetramethylpiperidine-N-oxyl – is no typical radical. Even the acronym implies control – something capable, perhaps, of imposing regularity, order on an unruly unpaired electron or headstrong reaction. Stahl’s group has developed easy methods using TEMPO, the bicyclic nitroxyl radical ABNO, and occasionally other similar species to aid their oxidations. In 2011, they reported a highly effective alcohol oxidation in acetonitrile using catalytic TEMPO, copper(I), 2,2’-bipyridine (bipy) ligand and N-methylimidazole (NMI) with oxygen from ambient air as terminal oxidant. Two years later, they followed up with another study delineating the rather complex mechanism.


The procedures are indeed safe, robust, easy and efficient. So easy, in fact, I’ve used them successfully myself in oxidations of primary alcohols (and I’m no organic chemist). The reagents are cheap and readily available.


From ACS Catal. 2013, 3, 1652-56

Reprinted with permission from Kim, J.; Stahl, S.S. ACS Catal. 2013, 3, 1652-56 Copyright (2013) American Chemical Society

 “Stahl’s radical-mediated oxidation of amines to nitriles”


Since then, using TEMPO or ABNO, Stahl’s group has extended this methodology to an impressive variety of transformations – oxidation of amines, carbamates, oxidative amide coupling. The group also studies other oxidation methods, including iron- or palladium-based catalyst systems and, recently electrochemical oxidations, which Stahl sees as holding promise to overcome many of the current challenges with catalytic oxidation. But it is the radical oxidant methods using oxygen from the air that have gained the greatest popularity so far. The commercial availability of the admixtures brings this tool from the metaphorical toolbox to the literal toolbox – or at least, the lab fridge. Most crucially, the procedures avoid the bane of every nervous senior researcher or manager: the use of highly explosive pure O2 gas by their colleagues.


Green Catalysts as Alternatives


It bears repeating – in 2020, there is absolutely no reason, given the alternatives available, to teach the use of chromates and other extremely dangerous reagents in academia, or to use them in industry.


OK, you say – no stoichiometric chromium, only catalyst and air. But what of the other leftovers from Stahl’s methods? In the case of the Cu/TEMPO systems, active catalyst requires the presence of all four ingredients above: the nitroxyl radical, copper, ligand, and base. Neither copper nor pyridines are generally benign reagents. But it can reasonably be concluded that catalytic amounts of copper-bipy/NMI complexes are preferable to stoichiometric chromate waste. Nature recently reported a study of copper-bipy complexes as anti-tumour and anti-inflammatory agents.


And what of the solvent? Most solvent guides assess acetonitrile as being a middling solvent – indeed, few polar aprotic solvents fare well in green solvent assessments. But acetonitrile is far from the worst offender.


There is only one full life cycle assessment that I have come across using TEMPO-type oxidation methods. But given the rapid development of these practical, efficient protocols by Stahl’s group, one can see that they are worthy of strong consideration as green alternatives. Stahl’s award is for the development of methodologies. It remains to be seen whether these methodologies will be widely scaled for use in industry. However, as Stahl points out, “the commodity chemical industry has learned to deal with O2 as an oxidant, so I don’t think the challenges here are insurmountable.”


The development from publication to commercially-available reagents bodes well for the replacement of some venerable but environmentally troublesome tools in the organic chemist’s oxidation toolbox.

Reprinted with permission from Steves, J.E.; Preger, Y.; Martinelli, J.R.; Welch, C.J.; Root, T.W.; Hawkins, J.M.; Stahl, S.S. Org. Proc. Res. Dev. 2015, 19, 1548-53 Copyright (2015) American Chemical Society

“Reaction vessel for small-scale aerobic oxidations”

By Jenny MacKellar, Program Manager, ACS Green Chemistry Institute & Aurora Ginzburg, Education Specialist, ACS Green Chemistry Institute


As we work towards developing green chemistry education resources for the undergraduate chemistry curriculum, we return to our green chemistry education road map vision: “Chemistry education that will equip and inspire chemists to solve the grand challenges of sustainability.” To achieve this vision, we have embarked on a three-year initiative to develop resources for use in undergraduate general chemistry and organic chemistry courses. The goal of the project is to support educators in bringing green and sustainable chemistry into the classroom using a systems thinking approach while using the UN Sustainable Development Goals as context rich examples. As many sustainability challenges become more pressing and urgent (such as the threat of climate change, ocean plastics, and even diversity, inclusion and respect), it’s imperative that chemists see themselves as agents of change for a more sustainable future.


Chemistry’s role in the UN Sustainable Development Goals


Upon first glance at the UN Sustainable Development Goals, it might be hard to make immediate connections between the role of chemistry and a larger sustainability goal like Quality Education or Good Health and Wellbeing. However, upon closer examination of the underlying targets and indicators of success for these goals, we start to see the connections to chemistry: 


Looking at these indicators we can see that if chemists aren’t educated in a way that equips them to provide solutions to the challenges sustainable development raises and to act as global citizens, they will not be able to design and supply the world with more sustainable chemicals and products.  To do this, a systems thinking approach is paramount.


Systems thinking for Chemistry Education


Systems thinking expands the scales, boundaries, and time frames over which we think about chemistry. In traditional chemistry education a reductionist approach is used to drive understanding of chemistry at scales ranging from the atom to the beaker, within a hood, and over short time frames. This approach is meaningful when seeking to understand how the world works at the atomic level.  However, this approach can be limiting because it doesn’t tell students how that chemistry impacts the world around them.  Where do the materials come from and where do they end up? What is their relative abundance? What are the societal impacts across the supply chain when using these materials?  What is the impact of the chemistry on the local community and the world?


Of course, answering all these questions when teaching fundamental chemistry concepts in an undergraduate chemistry course is not possible.  The intent is to make students aware of these issues and to think about questions like these.  Eventually, students should naturally consider a broad range of key questions when studying chemicals, chemical reactions, or processes.  In short, we are hoping to help students become systems thinkers.


Green and sustainable chemistry strategies provide a toolbox for chemists to develop more sustainable solutions. While green chemistry aims to eliminate or reduce impacts, it is all too common for green chemistry modifications to focus only on the beaker scale and therefore have limited overall improvements in chemical or process sustainability. By using a wider lens with life cycle thinking, improvements at one stage in the life cycle can be weighed against increased or decreased impacts at another stage. Systems thinking further opens the lens to consider the interconnectedness of elements within a system, the emergence of properties from a system, the boundaries being used, and how systems change over time.  Systems thinkers will step back and ask questions like what goals am I trying to achieve and what are the broader implications of my choices?  


Using a systems thinking approach, educators teach chemistry fundamentals but in the context of how chemistry affects the world. This creates opportunities to connect foundational content to the complex systems that impact students’ lives, making the content relevant and useful to them regardless of whether or not they continue on to upper division chemistry courses. 


Chemistry Education Module Development


This is where YOU come in. We’re looking for current chemistry educators and curriculum developers to join us on this module development adventure. Our intent is that these modules will contain green and sustainable chemistry examples, theory, and tools that help educators like you to teach foundational chemistry concepts.  The modules will be crafted with a systems thinking approach to help students connect the content to real-world scenarios with the UN Sustainable Development Goals providing the broader context of the challenges. Of course these modules need to be developed with best practices for effective teaching and learning and be paired with best practices for assessing student learning. We will utilize recent chemistry curricular reform efforts that take an evidence-based approach to teaching foundational concepts.


The goal is not to add additional content to the general or organic chemistry curriculum but rather to change the lens through which the content is taught.


If you are interested in joining a module development team, keep an out for the application coming this fall. The applications will be due in November 2020, and Module Development Teams will be formed by the end of 2020. Module development teams start in January 2021 with a series of virtual workshops to get the teams started. For more information about this project, check out the recording of our most recent webinar.

The American Chemical Society (ACS) just wrapped up its first Virtual National Meeting & Expo.  Pivoting from the planned in-person meeting to an online event proved challenging given the size of the National Meeting.  Despite these challenges, more than 4,000 scientists were able to share their work through the virtual meeting platform, demonstrating that the advancement of science continues even during a pandemic.


ACS staff and volunteers met with several committees during the National Meeting to share preliminary plans for the Society to address the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  As you know, the chemical sciences are essential in achieving the SDGs and chemistry is reflected in many of the 17 goals.  Through its sustainable development initiative, ACS hopes to have a measurable impact on the U.N. SDGs during the coming decade. 


The proposed strategy addresses three themes aligned with the SDGs:  Research, Innovation, and Translation (SDG 9, Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure); Sustainable Manufacturing and Chemicals Management (SDG 12, Responsible Consumption and Production); and Transforming Chemistry Education (SDG 4, Quality Education).  These themes build on ACS’ strengths and capabilities and connect with ACS members across sectors and disciplines.


The Society’s ongoing advocacy efforts support an increased federal focus on sustainable chemistry research, which helps advance the Research, Innovation, and Translation theme.  New models for conducting research can bridge the gap between academic research and commercialization.  Creation of an international collaboration research fund could further accelerate the pace of discovery and implementation of green and sustainable chemistry and engineering technologies.


Policy and regulation also play a role in promoting the second theme of Sustainable Manufacturing and Chemicals Management.  Manufacturing must develop new ways of making products in order to avoid harmful environmental and human health consequences.  New federally sponsored programs, modelled after the Department of Energy’s RAPID Institute, could support academic-industry partnerships in accelerating the deployment of more sustainable manufacturing technologies.


In order to create the workforce needed to apply chemistry to the global challenges articulated in the SDGs, we need to change the way we educate our students.  Chemists need an understanding of life cycle and systems thinking in order to recognize the impact of the choices they make in selecting chemicals, designing syntheses, and formulating products.  Transforming chemistry education, though not an easy task, would better prepare our students to meet the grand challenges of sustainability.


I welcome your feedback on these initiatives related to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, along with your ideas on how ACS can have an impact on the SDGs.  Please send your comments to  Stay safe and I look forward to your input!    


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