Contributed by Austin Evans, a recent graduate of The University of Tulsa and a rising graduate student at Northwestern University
I am fortunate to have recently attended the American Chemical Society’s 20th Annual Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference held in Portland, Oregon. I was particularly drawn to attend the ACS GC&E conference because I believe that all too often the ideas of sustainability and environmental impact are left out of scientific exploration. It was a remarkable experience to be surrounded by like-minded researchers from across the globe, all interested in what I consider to be a pressing scientific problem.
At the opening ceremony, I met a group of scientists who invited me to dinner. While the Portland sea food was outstanding, it didn’t hold a candle to the discussions had over dinner. The conversation quickly drifted from the research interests of those at the table to broader topics of feedstock sustainability, energy independence, and resource management. It was interesting to hear refined thoughts on these topics which I have only just begun to explore.
The next day, the conference presentations began. In the first session I attended, “Sustainability, How to Get There From Here”, a group of industry chemists presented on how they approach problems in green synthesis. It was really fascinating to hear how companies such as Bristol-Meyers Squibb and Merck view what makes a synthesis sustainable. In particular, I found it fascinating how the strategy to make a synthesis green did not always rely on yield. In some cases, pathways that resulted in lower yields were chosen to reduce other forms of waste (energy, time, solvents). Additionally, it was noted in this session that all too often, it is not the synthesis that is particularly wasteful but instead it is the work-up. This lead to a description of how industrial chemists approach the problem of generating a pure chemical product while not wasting large volumes of supporting chemicals. This session provided me with an insight into how large firms combine the desire to control cost while also being environmentally responsible.
Then, I attended two separate sessions each focusing on how best to utilize plant based feedstocks to generate valuable chemical products. This was of particular interest to me because my undergraduate research focused on using non-food plant stocks in chemical synthesis. It was a wonderful opportunity to see how my peers were solving problems in chemical sustainability using approaches that were very different from my own. It was refreshing to experience firsthand the excitement and innovation in green chemistry that these scientists brought to their presentations.
Finally, I attended and presented my research at the poster session. The room booked for the posters to be displayed was nearly overflowing with scientists who displayed a genuine interest in the research being presented. It was interesting to see how the research posters complimented several of the talks earlier in the day. I was impressed by the outstanding quality of the posters presented and by the curiosity displayed by those attending the session.
Overall, I would say that this conference opened my eyes to interesting concepts that I had not considered but can be used to make chemical science more sustainable. I look forward to taking what I learned in Portland on to the next step in my career as a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern. I am certain that the ideas introduced here will have a profound impact on how I approach my research in the future.
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