15 Green Chemistry Achievements in 2021

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By Aurora Ginzburg, Ph.D., Education Program Specialist, ACS Green Chemistry Institute

As the year draws to a close we wanted to take the opportunity to highlight some of the significant green chemistry research, educational initiatives, and innovations from 2021. This list is not in any particular order and is limited to 15 entries. Awards recognizing individual scientists—of which there are many in 2021—were not included. We welcome your addition of other significant achievements in the comments on this post!

  1. On January 1st the U.S. government enacted the Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act of 2019 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of fiscal year 2021. After many years of effort from green chemistry champions, this law expands federal support of green chemistry by encouraging federal agencies to incorporate sustainable chemistry into existing research and education programs. The law also calls for the formation of a multiagency task force to coordinate federal funding and promotion of sustainable chemistry research.

  2. With therapeutic oligonucleotides filling pharmaceutical industry pipelines, the ACS Green Chemistry Institute Pharmaceutical Roundtable published a paper outlining sustainability challenges and opportunities in oligonucleotide manufacturing. They demonstrated that oligonucleotides have PMI values on the order of 4,300 kg of waste per kg of active pharmaceutical ingredients produced, in contrast to more traditional small molecule therapeutics that generally have PMIs an order of magnitude smaller. A summary of the findings was included in our March Nexus blog post.

  1. Credit: Craig A. Bettenhausen/C&EN. Mirum lignocellulose leather.Credit: Craig A. Bettenhausen/C&EN. Mirum lignocellulose leather.Credit: Craig A. Bettenhausen/C&EN. Desserto cactus leather.Credit: Craig A. Bettenhausen/C&EN. Desserto cactus leather.Greener high-performing textiles continued to emerge in 2021! C&EN highlighted advances in the biobased leather market, describing how plant and mushroom leathers are poised to make significant dents in the chrome-tanned cow leather market. Allbirds introduced their plant-based leather that claims to be the first leather alternative on the market without any petrochemicals. Ambercycle developed a new circular fashion technology, cycora™, that consists of landfill-bound textile waste transformed into polyester pellets; the pellets are then turned into yarn for new garments. Evolved by Nature’s “activated silk” process was used to produce its first commercial garments, activewear without toxic finishing chemicals. On, a Swiss sports brand, announced its CleanCloud™ foam that will be used in the bottoms of shoes. This foam is made by capturing industrial carbon emissions and fermenting them into ethanol that is then dehydrated and polymerized.
  1. A new joint venture from HELM and Cargill will build the first commercial-scale, bio-based 1,4-butanediol (BDO) facility in the U.S. BDO is used as a solvent and as a precursor for spandex so the use of a fermentation process to produce this major chemical intermediate from sugar represents an encouraging change in the industry. Based in Iowa, this $300 million facility will save up to 93% of greenhouse gas emissions from traditional BDO production and will start up in 2024.

  1. Credit: ACS Journal of Chemical EducationCredit: ACS Journal of Chemical EducationThe ACS Journal of Chemical Education released a special issue on Chemical Safety Education: Methods, Culture, and Green Chemistry. This issue encourages "a new way to look at safety", with a focus on assessing hazards and minimizing risk, a philosophy that is central to the practice of green chemistry. 

  1. Professor Paul Chirik’s group at Princeton University discovered a new way to polymerize butadiene by using an iron catalyst to make a newly identified “game-changing” molecule, (1,n’-divinyl)oligocyclobutane, that can then be depolymerized to produce the butadiene monomer. This work brings new hope towards the prospect of closed-loop chemical recycling via depolymerization, and the lab is investigating oligocyclobutane further. 

Credit: Nature ChemistryCredit: Nature Chemistry

  1. As batteries continue to take on a monumental role in the clean energy revolution, a number of articles with thoughtful commentary on battery material sustainability were written including a perspective on battery sustainability in Advanced Energy Materials, an evaluation of organic redox flow batteries in Green Chemistry, and a blog post out of the University of Oulu.

  1. To address a strategic priority outlined in the green chemistry education road map, the ACS Green Chemistry Institute is leading a project to develop educational resources for general chemistry and organic chemistry courses.  Over the past year, about 50 faculty members from the U.S. and Canada have been collaborating on the creation of classroom materials. These materials teach foundational chemistry concepts using a holistic approach that connects the concepts to green chemistry, systems thinking, and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.

  2. The ACS Green Chemistry Institute and Beyond Benign are collaborating to establish the Green Chemistry Teaching and Learning Community, which will serve as an online hub for users to learn, collaborate, network, and receive mentorship.

  3. The U.S. Department of Labor projects that chemists specializing in green chemistry are going to be in demand over the next decade.

  4. The ACS Green Chemistry Institute Pharmaceutical Roundtable published spring and fall articles in their ongoing series in Organic Process Research & Development. This popular series identifies recent green chemistry advances that are of interest to the pharmaceutical industry.

  5. New Credit: ContinentalCredit: Continentalbiopolymers entered the market, heralding a possible paradigm shift in plastics. AirCarbon’s polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB), is now available in commercial products after 20 years of development. PHA continued to emerge as a major player in commercial plastics with applications in Skittles bags and Bacardí bottles. A former BioAmber bioplastics plant that went bankrupt in 2018 was bought back by LCY Biosciences and is now making more succinic acid than ever. Continental developed its "GreenConcept" tire that uses rubber from dandelion roots, recycled plastic water bottles in the sidewalls, vegetable-based plasticizers, while replacing energy-intensive silicates with silicates derived from grain production waste. While improvements in biopolymer economics, performance, and end-of-life are still needed, the advancements made this year are encouraging. 

  6. The EPA Green Chemistry Challenge Awards recognized significant advancements in the field. The innovations recognized were greener reagents for preparing oligonucleotide drugs, a reduced impact surface cleaner, a synthetic process that minimizes the cost and waste of producing an investigational medicine for chronic cough, a material that captures water contaminates and uses them for fertilizer, and a lignin-based non-isocyanate polyurethane (NIPU) foam. The nominations for the 2022 awards are now open, including the addition of a sixth award category, “Specific Environmental Benefit: Climate Change”.

  7. Scientists combined green chemistry and biomimicry to drive sustainable innovation. From butterfly wings that inspired materials for air purification units, to mussels that inspired non-toxic adhesives, nature has countless natural structures that perform sophisticated functions. With a green approach to chemical and material synthesis, these structures can be recreated with minimal impact on human and environmental health. The full article in Environmental Health News covers a range of research in this area.
  8. With the Haber-Bosch process consuming 1% of the world’s energy and emitting enormous amounts of CO2, greener ammonia production is critically important. Engineers at the University of Illinois Chicago developed a solar-driven electrosynthesis of ammonia using wastewater nitrate. Their cobalt catalyst enabled ten-fold higher reaction efficiency than past work. Additionally, chemists at Monash University demonstrated that phosphonium cations can act as recyclable proton shuttles in an electrochemical Haber-Bosch process, thereby speeding up the ammonia production process by moving protons faster from the anode to the cathode. Industrially, the world’s first green ammonia plant was funded. The REDDAP Project in Western Jutland, Denmark received  € 11 million from the Danish Energy Technology Development and Demonstration Program to build its 5,000 tonnes/year plant, opening in 2023. There, ammonia will be produced using energy generated by wind turbines and solar panels that are directly connected to the electrolysis unit.

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