Many of our readers will have heard of Dr. Paul Anastas, currently of Yale, as an early champion of green chemistry whose passion and drive continue to advance the field. Anastas, then with the EPA was one of the organizers of the first GC&E Conference and will return this year as a fitting keynote for our 20th anniversary. In anticipation of his keynote speech this June 14th, we asked him to take a look back on the past 20 years of green chemistry and what the he thinks the next 20 may hold.
Q: You are keynoting at the 20th anniversary of the conference you helped put together 20 years ago. What does this mean to you and what subjects would you like to highlight in your keynote?
A: Thinking back 20 years ago, there were many people around the world who were genuine champions of green chemistry. And even if they were doing great green chemistry, they too often felt as if they were alone in the world and they didn't have a community. There were wonderful individual efforts to build green chemistry research and to develop green chemistry education, business and even policy, but there was nothing to bring them together; there were no journals, there was nothing. So one of the things that really drove me to try to set up this conference back in 1996 was to give people a community and support. It was a something more than just a place to present their work. It was a tangible way to let the champions know that they were not alone and, that there are people who thought as they did and let them exchange ideas. So when I look back at the history of the conference, and how it has brought together so many different people from so many different countries and backgrounds and many different industry sectors and from different parts of academia, I think that the greatest achievement of this conference has been building the international green chemistry community.
Q: What do you think has changed in the past 20 years with green chemistry and GC&E, and how have you seen that reflected in the symposia?
A: When green chemistry’s conceptual framework was first emerging, people would think about different elements of it. For example, how can we move away from wasteful synthesis, or, how can we not use toxic solvents, or, how can we make things from renewable feedstocks and so they are degradable in the environment. Many of the talks and presentations would focus on those individual elements that people were trying to achieve. One of the things we’ve seen over time is that people have started to think far more systematically and holistically and view the 12 Principles as the cohesive and comprehensive framework that it is. That kind of systems thinking has greatly increased its presence in the conference and that’s important. Why is this important? Because it is one thing to look at your chemistry to make it less polluting, or less wasteful, or a little bit more efficient and it is another thing to drive a genuine innovation. Genuine innovation only comes through systems thinking.
Q: In the beginning, where did you see the conference going and has it fulfilled your expectations and goals?
A: The whole point of the conference was to build a community and to see what it can achieve. The goal was to move from an initial understanding of what green chemistry was, to a far more holistic vision to what it could be. Do I think that the conference is still on that trajectory of a continuous improvement? Yes, and it always will be. The theme of this year’s conference is all around design. There is the reason why “design” is the most important word in the definition of green chemistry. This is because design requires a thoughtful planning of products, processes and systems. How the conference reflects these aspirational goals will always continue to improve and never be completed.
Q: What do you think the significance of this annual conference had been to the green chemistry community?
A: For so many years, especially for the first decade when I was lucky enough to Chair the conference, the whole purpose of the conference was to make it a home to the green chemistry and green engineering community. And I’d like to see this trend to continue. Everyone knows that in 2016 there are countless conferences all over the world related to green chemistry-- there are topical conferences, regional conferences, industrial conferences and there will be more and more as the field continues to grow. Which are all wonderful, however, what the Annual Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference should always strive to be is that go-to conference that people consider their scientific home
Q: Where do you think green chemistry and engineering will be 20 years from now?
A: The good news is that the field of green chemistry and green engineering will be inventing things, doing things and discovering things that I am incapable of imagining in 2016. When we think about what the green chemistry has accomplished in the past 25 years, I think that one of the most exciting things about all of those achievements is not the magnitude or breath of them, but rather that they represent the tip of the iceberg of what is possible and the fact that this is only the beginning. When we look at the new conceptual frameworks, new ways of thinking and different perspectives, we can’t really tell where this effort is going to lead, and, how people, groups and institutions are going to build on it and take it into new directions. Many people think that the word “green” in green chemistry might mean environmentally friendly or economically friendly, (with green being the color of money); but the most exciting definition “green” in green chemistry is “young, fresh and new”. And that is what I always hope for green chemistry, that is stays ever-green.
Q: If you were a young chemist today, what promising area of research or study would you focus on?
A: I would try to identify the research questions by taking a very hard look at the world as it is today and I would identify what are the most absurd things about the status quo; because there’s plenty of absurdity. Whether it’s the way we produce our food, the way we think about medicine, the way we generate, store, and transport our energy, and the way that we clean our water. Look at how many of our fundamental processes of the economy, society and civilization make no sense and create disparities, tragedies, contamination, pollution and depletion. This is not the way it should be. These are areas for innovation, discovery and improvement. And yes, there are millions of interesting research questions that one could ask. Why would you ever want to pursue one if it didn’t have a chance of improving the world? So find these current absurdities and think of using your talents to help the world.
The 20th Annual GC&E Conference will be held on June 14-16, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. Receive a discounted price during advanced registration through April 29th. For more information, visit gcande.org.
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