Are We Training Chemists to be Contributors to Solving the Grand Challenges of Sustainability?

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By David J.C. Constable, Science Director of the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute

Since 2013 I’ve had the privilege of being part of the ACS Summer School on Sustainable Energy and Green Chemistry.  Each year there are about 60 students from North and South America that attend for a week of highly interactive lectures and classroom activities.  Poster sessions provide an opportunity for students to showcase their work and engage in in-depth conversations with their peers and faculty about the green and sustainable chemistry attributes of their research.  For many students, it is the first time that they are exposed to systems thinking, streamlined gate-to-gate life cycle inventory / assessment, the importance of metrics, solvents, green and sustainable chemistry design, the sustainability profile of photovoltaics, hydrogen fuel cells, etc.  Frankly, it’s pretty overwhelming to take it all in.  You can read about it from a student’s perspective in Michelle Muzzio’s article in this issue of the Nexus.

I’d like to say that since 2013 I’ve seen an increasing number of students who have been previously exposed to some of these ideas through their course work, but sadly, I can’t say that.  Yes, there are a few that have been exposed to one or more of these ideas, but for the majority, it is uncharted territory.  On the one hand, this points to the importance of the Summer School, and the need for it remains.  On the other hand, it could be said that this points to a fundamental need to change how chemistry is being taught; i.e., chemistry needs to be taught in a sustainable or sustainability context, and a mindset that enables chemists to become contributors to solving the grand challenges of sustainability should be actively cultivated. 

This is why I have become so passionate about the need to change chemistry education.  In 2015 the U.N. produced a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs); 17 goals that evolved from the Millennium Goals against which governments are expected to make significant progress in meeting by 2030.   If you haven’t done so, it’s worth taking a moment to have a look at them.

I have often stated that there are no communities that have a greater technical contribution to make in creating a more sustainable world than the chemistry and chemical engineering communities.  In looking at the 17 SDGs, it is my opinion that at least 11 of them have significant technical challenges associated with them and these must be resolved if we are to make significant progress in meeting the goals.  The Nexus will be featuring more on the SDGs in the issues to come, as explained in my colleague Christiana Briddell’s article in this issue of the Nexus.  

The issue in my mind is that we don’t generally seem to be educating and preparing chemists to be contributors to resolving sustainability challenges and the question remains as to why aren’t we making a greater effort to do so?  It’s not as though there aren’t interesting and challenging fundamental questions of science to be answered in meeting these challenges.  In other words, the false choice of “I can do work in green or sustainable chemistry, or I can do good science” needs to be dismissed out of hand.  Fundamental understanding in the science of chemistry, separations, process chemistry, the ability to make and break chemical bonds in a sustainable manner – all of these represent formidable and very interesting scientific challenges crucial to meeting the world’s sustainability goals. 

Equally false is the idea that there is no business case for green and sustainable chemistry.  Any new chemistry innovation whether it is green and sustainable or not is more expensive in its first generation.  The idea that innovation in green and sustainable chemistry is more expensive is simply a perception not a reality although it is a very difficult perception to overcome.  The part of the chemical manufacturing enterprise characterized by high-volume continuous processes has become bound by incremental improvements in mass and energy efficiency and maintenance of the status quo.  Lower volume, batch chemical operations are characterized by doing chemistry in the same way to ensure reproducibility and quality.  Anything that is seen as potentially disruptive to either paradigm is rejected as being too expensive, especially within the limited context of the existing operations. 

The question is how long can society afford to operate in an unsustainable manner before there is unwelcome, disruptive, uncontrolled and damaging change?  The SDGs offer the world a path to a brighter future that should avoid that kind of damaging change and one well worth greater attention by the chemistry and engineering communities.  It is my fervent hope that we all see the opportunities and rise to the occasion!

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David, I applaud your blog. Life biggest purpose is to remind, but without the planet, there is no life. The chemical challenges overlap with other disciplines as we saw in the recent article in C&E News about recycling of Li-ion batteries because the process has to be economically viable. Another example is the overwhelming problem with plastic. Sorting plastic items out is not only an industrial problem, but it is also chemical and chemists can help. We contributed to creating these problems and we can find the solutions working with engineers and business professionals. It is indispensable that university leaders work to improve the educational programs to implement a sustainably-minded design in the programs for all degrees in all of the departments.