Chemistry and Systems Thinking

Honored Contributor
0 1 3,927

Contributed by David Constable, Director, ACS GCI

Some of you may have read a few recent publications about the future of chemistry1, 2. It’s always interesting to read articles like these to see the author’s vision of chemistry as it is now and for chemistry in the future. If you haven’t read these two publications, I would encourage you to do so. For about the past 18 months to two years, the ACS GCI has been working with key stakeholders in the chemistry education community to think about how sustainable and green chemistry concepts might be integrated into chemistry education at the undergraduate to graduate level. One idea, concept or way of thinking that is integral to truly understanding sustainable and green chemistry is getting your mind around systems and systems thinking. Systems-thinking is more readily identified with systems biology and many parts of engineering, but it is not something readily associated with chemistry and perhaps that is why discussions about sustainable and green chemistry in the chemistry community are so challenging.

If you haven’t been exposed to it before, you may be asking what systems thinking is? To me, in the context of chemistry, systems-thinking requires you to think about where elements, molecules, chemicals and materials come from, how they are made into the chemically useful forms we exploit, how they are transformed to build innovative products, where they end up in products, and where they end up after they have served their function or intended purpose. In addition, systems-thinking forces you to consider how elements, molecules, chemicals and materials interact with and affect people, the economy, and the environment over the course of their use, reuse or disposal. In other words, systems-thinking puts chemistry in a real world context, not just in a flask in the hood of your laboratory. It also asks you to think about how chemistry may be used to provide services and functions to other sciences and end uses as opposed to being an end all to itself to advance the science of chemistry. I realize this is a lot to ask, and I also realize that it is a very complex undertaking, especially when just learning chemistry and to apply it as it is now taught is hard enough as it is.

Now that the “what” has been explained, let’s turn to the “why”; i.e., why is systems-thinking important?  Systems thinking is crucial because we are currently operating as if there are no limits to the resources we are currently consuming at alarming rates, because we are operating as if the world can continue to assimilate the chemicals and wastes produced to make the products society desires without any adverse impacts to people or the environment, and because we are barely scratching the surface of the innovation space available to us. The first two are possibly well-accepted by most as the underpinnings for sustainable and green chemistry, but the third may not be something many associate with sustainable and green chemistry. However, I would challenge you to think about the many unmet needs and grand challenges of sustainability whose solutions, from a technological perspective, are heavily dependent on chemistry.  Innovation through the lens of sustainability and green chemistry is beginning to drive people to consider new kinds of chemistry that provide unique functions and amazing science while preserving people’s health and the environment.

It has perhaps become trite to say that the world has become smaller, but it is hard to argue with the fact that news and information travels internationally at rapid rates. We also generally accept that there are a greater number of things in our lives that connect us around the world and we see and understand these connections. For example, we understand at some level that when there is a financial crisis in Europe, or Asia, or the U.S., this has international ramifications of some kind, but may not affect us immediately, or prevent us from withdrawing some money from our local ATM. In the same way, we should see that using an element in catalysis, let’s just say, Iridium, connects us to a group of miners in South Africa who work in conditions we are unlikely to want to work in, that the separation and purification of Iridium from the ore that is mined comes with enormous, long-lasting adverse environmental impacts, and dispersing that homogeneous, unrecoverable Iridium catalyst as a waste may have impacts we don’t quite understand, but we know are there. So maybe we might find another way to catalyze our reaction that doesn’t have that adverse systemic effect? It’s an enormous challenge to think about all the connections that attend the chemistry we do in our laboratories, but it isn’t an insurmountable one. For me, it’s a compelling reason to become a chemist, and now, we only need to convince more people of just how rewarding and compelling a career in chemistry can be. I have every confidence that we can make progress in getting chemists to consider systems in their work, but it will take time. My hope is that we might sometime soon start the journey together.

1. Matlin, S.A.;  Mehta, G.; Hopf, H.; Krief, A.  One-World Chemistry and Systems Thinking. Nat. Chem. 2016, 8, 393-398.

2. Whitesides, G. M.  Reinventing Chemistry. Angew. Chem. Intl .Ed. 2015, 54, 3196-3209.

“The Nexus Blog” is a sister publication of “The Nexus” newsletter. To sign up for the newsletter, please email, or if you have an ACS ID, login to your email preferences and select “The Nexus” to subscribe.

To read other posts, go to Green Chemistry: The Nexus Blog home.

1 Comment