Contributed by Brendan Phillips, 2015 CIBA Winner, Ursinus College
The 20th Annual GC&E conference was the first national meeting I have attended and upon arrival I was not sure what to expect. Beginning with Monday's student workshop, I started thinking critically about the all important topic of design. The workshop explored the chemistry of color— from its history in the development of the chemical profession, to its importance in marketing and business. The breadth of the workshop was impressive; I learned that the chemical profession was primarily responsible for the development of new paints and pigments which directly influenced the artistic works of great impressionists such as Monet, how chemistry provided the requisite materials for new modes of human expression, artistic and otherwise. The workshop directors offered insightful perspectives on how color is today created, used and understood. I found the concept of structural color, the appearance of color due to the interaction of light with molecular frameworks—exemplified in butterflies and peacocks—to be a fascinating area ripe for further research. Moreover, I enjoyed working as part of a team during the workshop, getting the chance to network and expose myself to areas outside of my specialization in synthetic chemistry. I was able to meet students and professionals from all over the world working in various disciplines, many outside of traditional chemistry itself. My key takeaway experience from the workshop was the strong interdisciplinary nature of environmental stewardship and the ability of green chemistry to bridge otherwise isolated disciplines in order to solve modern problems.
Chemistry in its development, research, and industrial activities has truly grown as a function of social needs and wants. It has been the challenge of chemists to develop new chemical products in order to better serve society. They perform this function largely by systematic design (and often, too, by accident). It's here that chemistry has shown its colors in the past and it is here that the field will do so in the future. I entered the field of green chemistry with a background in synthetic development, but at the 20th annual GC&E Conference, I was able to see that the field encompasses so much more. I was thoroughly impressed by the research that is currently underway in green chemistry; I was previously unaware of the developments being made in polymer, computational and analytical chemistry—needless to say the industrial efforts toward greener processes coming from forward-thinking companies. I was most impressed by the simple ingenuity of the science presented—from bio-based sulfur-polymers, to in silica toxicological modeling and predictive tools, to renewable energy and rethinking multi-ton scale separations. It was an eye-opening experience to see such science and to interact with those who are actually doing it, either at the bench top or in the boardroom.
Moreover, I realized that design is a key element if not the key element in the green chemistry movement, since it challenges us to redefine our problems and solutions. It's well known that a seemingly unsolvable problem often reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem itself, such is the simple importance of clearly defining problems at their inception. To this end, the student workshop emphasized two questions by which we may understand design in green chemistry, 1) Greener than what?, and 2) Greener how? These two questions are essential to any undertaking in the field of green chemistry since they directly address what is meant by "green." A memorable presentation which emphasized these questions was one given by Drs. Maloney and Humphrey, research chemists at Merck. They showed the application of green chemistry toward the synthesis of a drug candidate. By working according to the principles of green chemistry, a simpler, less material intensive and higher yielding synthetic method was developed through conscious design. Without understanding the bulk of waste production as resulting from chromatographic purification, an alternative purification method would never have been considered. Dr. Maloney's presentation reminded me that green chemistry is as much an art as a science. It requires passion, faith, enthusiasm, effort and ultimately creative thinking. All of the scientists that I met at the conference embodied these principles. A sense of scientific and environmental stewardship was palpable throughout the conference.
With the right principles in mind, good intentions and concerted effort, I am confident that the brilliant and talented scientists who took part in this year's GC&E conference will continue to advance green chemistry. Hopefully one day, as Paul Anastas suggested, green chemistry will become a thing of the past—superseded simply by chemistry.
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