Eric Beckman: Integrating Green

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What will the next twenty years of green chemistry and engineering innovations hold? This is the question that Dr. Eric Beckman seeks to illuminate in his upcoming keynote address at the 18th Annual Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference. Beckman is a professor of engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, an accomplished researcher, entrepreneur, and a proponent of an integrated approach to sustainability education.

EricBeckmanlarge.jpgBeckman has always seemed to bridge worlds. He got his bachelor's degree in chemical engineering at MIT before entering the chemical industry for three years, then returned to graduate school where he received a PhD in polymer science at the University of Massachusetts. In 1989, Beckman joined the chemical engineering department at the University of Pittsburgh continuing a research interest in CO2 as a solvent.

Carbon dioxide is a nontoxic, inexpensive, mild solvent that continues to excite many researchers with its potential. Uses for CO2 had already been developed in the 70s for application in the food industry, particularly for the decaffeination process. However, Beckman explains that "by the late 80s, people had exhausted what they could try to do with it because all of the most interesting things you might want to dissolve in CO2 just wouldn't go." So what he and a few other researchers first set out to do was find out how to design substances to dissolve into CO2. Once this was accomplished it opened up doors for uses that hadn’t been possible before. Throughout the 90s, Beckman explored new processes in CO2, ultimately leading to being awarded an EPA Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award in 2002 for the Design of Non-Fluorous, Highly CO2-Soluable Materials.

As the decade progressed, Beckman's thinking around what is “green” began to evolve as a number of influences and interests converged. He expanded his focus on green processes by beginning to explore how to design greener products—and in doing so, developed the first course on product design for chemical engineering students at Pitt. He also began reading work on materials flow analysis, considering questions such as where exactly did chemicals go in the environment. As a chemical engineer, Beckman says he immediately understood the concept of pollution prevention: "You've paid money for materials, you've paid money to process the materials, and now you are going to pay money to throw part of them away? That doesn't make any sense economically."  Adding to this understanding, Beckman credits Paul Anastas and John Warner’s ideas and the work of Jane Bare on lifecycle assessment (LCA) for broadening his ideas about sustainability in science. To cap off the decade, he cofounded the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation at Pitt in 1999, for which is now the codirector.

In 2007, Beckman took a three year sabbatical from Pitt to start up a company, Cohera Medical, to commercialize research into new medical adhesives. Essentially, these biocomopatable medical adhesives hold tissues together as the natural healing process occurs and is then are resorbed by the body after degrading into harmless subcomponents. Their first product, TissueGlu®, has recently been approved in Europe and is slated to be approved in the U.S. this year.

What does green chemistry mean to you? Says Beckman, “Systems and customers.”

Now back at Pitt, Beckman is busy responding to a new thrust from the University's leadership to expand and integrate sustainability research  and education throughout the school. With the Mascaro Center playing a leading role, Beckman is helping to define the direction of new coursework, research certificates, and a new master's degree that will integrate sustainability into fields like public health, business, law, and political science, along with chemistry and chemical engineering. For chemical engineering students, part of what this will look like is a more integrated entrepreneurial focus, where students take business essentials as a sophomore, product design (including green design) as a junior and senior's with great product ideas will have the option of taking a prototyping class. The goal is to start to bridge some of the silos between departments, and between the business and academic world that trouble the chemical enterprise. Beckman emphasized that as a result of these silos we've created, "If you were going to sit down in academia to create a green product, you'd need a team of nine from nine different departments." The same holds true in industry.

For small business, the silos are even more problematic. "There are huge differences between small business and academia," Beckman points out, making it hard for small companies to work with academia. Small companies can access capital, but have to move very fast to prevent burning through it; academics have plenty of time, but never enough money. Small companies need team players; academia rewards the standout individual. "Academia does not train PhDs to do what small companies need them to do," concludes Beckman. At the university, students are trained to be great scientists, but "small companies need a PhD to manage projects, people, and budgets against the constraint of time."

It’s an appropriate time to reflect as green chemistry reaches twenty. We have come a long way –as Beckman rightly points out, twenty years ago you couldn't even put the words "green" and "chemistry" together. Yet, we are in many ways still near the beginning of a growing movement to rethink how  chemistry & engineering are carried out, in order to be truly sustainable.

Join Dr. Eric Beckman and others at the 18th Annual Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference in the Washington DC area June 17-19, 2014. In addition a keynote address, Dr. Beckman will be presenting "Beyond the PhD: Start-ups as early employee or founder".

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