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.