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2016 GC&E Student Workshop: The Design Challenge

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This year’s student workshop, held Monday, June 14, 2016, in Portland, was dramatically different from years past. With green chemistry gaining  momentum, it was time to push participants further than ever before with a green chemistry design challenge.

Color dramatically influences human behavior from how we communicate to how we make decisions, and it is a ubiquitous component of consumer products. The materials and processes used to generate color in consumer products have significant impacts on human health and the environment.

In light of economic, social and environmental impacts of color on society, students were asked to use the principles of green chemistry to design a comprehensive strategy for overcoming the challenges associated with dyes, pigments, inks and structural color. The strategies were required to be environmentally viable, socially acceptable and to have a net positive environmental impact compared to existing products and processes.


Each design team included four students from chemistry and engineering: one “Design Catalyst” from the University of Oregon’s Product Design Program (undergraduate) and one “Color Expert” from the chemistry community.

The goal? To get students thinking about the practical application of green chemistry ideas.

During the first part of the workshop, background information was presented on the history, chemistry, impacts, and business of color, and how a variety of tools are used to address the unintended biological impacts of dyes and colorants. Throughout the morning, these presentations ranged g from an Introduction to Color (Eric Beckman) to Toxicology and Rational Design of Safer Chemicals (Adelina Voutchkova) to Products Gone Wild (John Frazier). Before lunch, the teams combined and presented their ideas for “peer-review.” Color and design experts in the room listened to the ideas presented by the students and provided constructive feedback and new directions as needed. One of the challenges in this portion of the workshop was that ideas had to be presented rapidly, with only four minutes to explain the idea and four minutes of review.

At the end of the day, after brainstorming and peer reviews, each team presented their final ideas to the group. Students had the opportunity to brainstorm ideas, test drive possible solutions among  their peers and then present their final ideas to the group at the end of the day.

Interview with Richard Blackburn: Design Challenge Expert

A: In my research at the University of Leeds, I’m mainly working in a couple of different areas. Most of my career I’ve worked in textiles, specifically textile coloration. For my whole time at Leeds, my research group has been all about green chemistry and sustainability issues in the textile industry. A lot of our work is looking at related products and processes. We’ve been looking at green dying processes, better use of greener start materials, greener fibers, and looking at various elements of each of those things. I’ve got PhD students at the moment looking at different prospects I’m presenting about is this week (at the green chemistry & engineering conference).

Richard Blackburn (2).jpg

One of the other areas I’ve been into for about 10 years is cosmetics. A lot of this work has been in hair dyes, but also cosmetics in general and coming up with green chemistry/sustainable solutions in those industries. I actually have a spin-out company called Keracol Limited, and we commercialize a lot of the work that we do in our research groups. A big element of that is color as well because we’re looking at the examples of hair dyes and all the colorings used in the cosmetic industry.

It was fantastic today [during the GC&E student workshop]  to see all the different disciplines that were represented. It was great that people from different backgrounds were trying to come up with sustainable solutions to the issues in the color industry because there are so many challenges. And it’s not just about textiles. We heard about cosmetics, we heard about hair dye, and we heard about food, but there are also other things like paint and so many different areas where color is important in our lives. I found that taking a multidisciplinary approach to solving the problems in the color industry is really, really novel and inspiring. Other disciplines have things to contribute that maybe a chemist wouldn’t think about, so I think that combining different disciplines, different non-chemical backgrounds, using biologists or people who are associated with the business aspects or product design is the way to solve these huge issues in coloration in relation to green chemistry.

Q: Design students are more used to having to jump into a problem like we asked them to during the student workshop. Did they have to pull the chemists along, or was everyone happy to jump in?

A: Each of us “color experts” had a group of chemists, and mine  was fantastic. I really liked the approach that we took, and everybody was really willing to consider all the issues and think about all the different aspects involved. I understand what you’re saying about chemists not jumping in with the design aspect because I think chemists by default go for a specifically chemical approach. For example, if your problem is the dye, do you go to look at replacing the dye with something else or do you look at the whole system? That might be a system that still uses that dye, but in a better way or more efficiently. But do you even need to use that dye in the first place? Is there a completely different step change that you can think about?

Green chemistry is about step change ideas. I don’t think we really solve sustainability by tinkering at the edges or by small incremental changes. There needs to be step changes, and they need to be innovative. It comes back to thinking about it from that blank piece of paper perspective, without all those prejudices of our individual discipline and  thinking from scratch.


Q: Which group were you with today in the student workshop? What do you think was the most exciting thing that came out of your group?

A: There were really interesting approaches. The specific problem they were looking at in the hair dye industry is a problem I’ve worked on a lot myself. Even without my influence they came up with a lot of great ideas that I’ve never thought about. For example, we’ve spent so much time trying to come up with systems to make the hair dye permanent, and that’s maybe using safer chemistry while still having dye that needs to be permanent. But actually we had to ask: is there a smarter way to do it? So my group had this idea of having something that‘s only temporary, that only lasts one or two washes, but you’re applying it regularly. For example, it could be applied each time you condition your hair or you style your hair, for example. Simply thinking about delivering it in a different way while ultimately achieving the same objective of what the consumer wants can lead to interesting innovations. The same thing applies when you’re looking at applications-based research, where you’re looking at specific problems. What you really need to consider is what the product requirements are at the end, so you don’t necessarily have to go down the same route. It comes back to tinkering with an idea and asking if it’s better to use the same or similar approach or if it’s better to try something completely different. Can we get the consumer what they want in a greener way?  I think that’s where the real opportunities for innovation are.

Q: Are there good opportunities in this space for startups and entrepreneurs?

A: I think there’s a growing consumer interest in sustainability and in natural products, so I think that it presents a lot of opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME’s) to go in with something novel and still get traction. There’s different ways to sell things now. We don’t have to sell things in stores so you can sell things online and sell things in small batches. There are opportunities now that 20 years ago, when green chemistry really started, if you couldn’t convince a large manufacture, brand or retailer that it was a good idea it just wouldn’t happen. But now I don’t think that’s the case. Small SME’s, small companies, really have a future in terms of coming up with these new ideas that I think consumers will buy into.

Q: Do you have much experience with biobased alternatives? I’ve noticed people are trying to make biobased chemicals, but they often make the same chemicals that have already created sustainability challenges. How does that fall in line with taking a step back and approaching problems holistically?

A: Certainly in a lot of product-type situations people don’t look at life cycle analysis. There’s a misconception that we can just replace one component, and the whole thing will be better. However, as we all know as green chemists, that’s not necessarily the case. We need to think about the implication of the product’s whole life cycle within the supply chain. In industries I know well, like cosmetics and food, it is assumed that natural alternatives are going to be safer and greener, but that’s not always the case. Nature has a really important role, but maybe that’s just to inspire us. From that inspiration we can combine nature and green chemistry principles in our systems. It doesn’t necessarily mean taking it from nature directly because that might not be sustainable.

We don’t have enough land to grow food for people, so we’re not going to dedicate the land we do have to growing chemicals for things that are unnecessary like cosmetics. With that said, there’s a lot of opportunity or looking at waste and byproducts from other industries where we either take these materials and use them directly if they’re safe, or we take these products and use them as building blocks to do our own synthetic chemistry.

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