By Dan Bailey, 2020 Peter J. Dunn Award for Green Chemistry Winner
My interest in green chemistry started with a simple realization about how we do chemistry: we produce far more waste than actual products.
I joined the process chemistry group at Takeda Pharmaceuticals in 2009, the summer after I graduated from Brown University with undergraduate degrees in chemistry and anthropology. Completing a two-year independent research project as an undergraduate provided me with just enough lab experience to begin a career in process chemistry, although I still had an enormous amount to learn on the job.
My undergraduate coursework in anthropology, on the other hand, left me with an enduring interest in the human side of chemistry and the discipline’s practical societal impacts. In my first few years at Takeda, I gained a firmer understanding of the goals, methods and other technical aspects of developing pharmaceutical manufacturing processes, but I also began to think more critically about the practical effects of my work. Which brings us back to my realization about waste, a realization I would later learn is connected to the concept of systems thinking.*
It’s obvious in retrospect, and I’m not the first to point this out: nearly everything we do as chemists, each synthetic transformation, each extraction and wash, each distillation, each crystallization and filtration, produces an ever-expanding pool of waste. We’ve developed such an efficient system for removing and disposing of this waste that the problem was almost invisible as I went about my day-to-day lab work. But once I’d noticed the sheer quantity of waste we produce in our lab and, especially, in the manufacturing plants I visited, it changed the way I thought about my work as a process chemist.
Each decision I made took on new urgency. Even seemingly insignificant and arbitrary decisions – unnecessarily dilute reaction conditions or an extra wash – could ripple outward, making their way into a manufacturing process where their effects are amplified many times over.
As I began to think more carefully about efficiency and waste avoidance in my work, I began reading about green chemistry and started advocating for incorporating green chemistry approaches into our work at Takeda. Around this time, Dave Leahy, a new associate director with a background in green chemistry, joined the process chemistry group and, together, we began building a green chemistry program.
We introduced tools and resources for bench chemists. We measured and tracked the efficiency of our manufacturing processes, promoted awareness of green chemistry principles in day-to-day work and collaborated pre-competitively with likeminded chemists at other companies through the ACS Green Chemistry Institute Pharmaceutical Roundtable.
The more I learned about green chemistry, the more I became aware of the scope of the challenge facing the pharmaceutical industry. It isn’t just that we generate hundreds of kilograms of waste for every kilogram of active pharmaceutical ingredient we make. We also use solvents and reagents that pose an inherent risk to the health and safety of workers. We rely on non-renewable fossil fuels for the raw materials to make medicines, and our manufacturing processes are responsible for significant volatile organic compound and greenhouse gas emissions.
As an industry, we’re producing medicines that change people’s lives for the better, but like all chemical manufacturing industries, we’re also contributing to the greatest problem of our time – the accelerating environmental degradation of the planet.
It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem, but I also find it deeply motivating. The carbon emissions associated with manufacturing a single batch of active pharmaceutical ingredient can easily exceed 100 metric tons. To offset these emissions in my personal life, I’d have to avoid taking 75 round-trip transatlantic flights or avoid driving 300,000 miles. But in my work as a process chemist, I have the opportunity to make a huge impact on carbon emissions, waste generation, and worker safety by designing safer, more efficient manufacturing processes.
Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to begin working toward a different and more sustainable future. What began as a side project evaluating chemistry-in-water methodology with two student interns evolved into a full-fledged manufacturing process conducted almost entirely in water. This work, which received this year’s Peter J. Dunn Award for Green Chemistry, established by the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute® Pharmaceutical Roundtable, allowed me to glimpse a future without organic solvents.
Viewing my work from an anthropological perspective has allowed me to see that our approach to chemistry and chemical manufacturing is not an immutable scientific fact. It’s the cumulative result of over a hundred years of human decisions, many of them anonymous and ultimately ill-considered. We can, and must, do better.
As chemists, each of us, whether we work in industry or academia, has a responsibility to rethink how we do chemistry and begin imagining a radically different and more sustainable future. A future where chemical feedstocks are renewable and organic solvents are no longer needed, where chemical products are designed with safety and non-persistence in mind, where chemistry research and chemical manufacturing are carbon neutral, and where pharmaceutical manufacturing plants no longer need holding tanks for waste.
To make this future a reality, we must place the human side of chemistry at the center of our work.
Dan Bailey is a Process Chemist at Takeda Pharmaceuticals.
* Systems thinking in chemistry involves taking a holistic approach to the products we make and considering their economic, governmental, and environmental impacts before we design the product., It requires thinking about the inputs we use to make a product and where we are sourcing them from. It means looking at the process used to make the product and finding ways to reduce waste safely. It also includes thinking about the safety aspects during the product lifetime and how to reuse and recycle the components at the end of the product’s life cycle.
 York, Sarah and Orgill, MaryKay, “ChEMIST Table: A Tool for Designing or Modifying Instruction for a Systems Thinking Approach to Chemistry Education,” Journal of Chemical Education, April 21, 2020, Page D, https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.jchemed.0c00382.