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Green Student Chapter Highlight: Heidelberg University

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Contributed by Nathaniel Beres, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, Heidelberg University

I don’t remember hearing about green chemistry as an undergraduate, and if I did, I would have thought that it meant I should recycle. It wasn’t until graduate school that I really understood the goals and importance of green chemistry. As a faculty member, I want to make sure that all Heidelberg University Chemistry/Biochemistry graduates understand the value and importance of green chemistry much earlier in their careers than I did.

One of the hardest tasks when we first started was distinguishing between sustainability and green chemistry. One thing that helps us accomplish this at Heidelberg is the existence of other groups on campus that focus on sustainability activities. It allows us to put our energy into activities that deal more directly with green chemistry. I certainly think that green chemistry and sustainability are connected and that green chemistry is one of the driving forces towards sustainability, but in sustainability initiatives hazardous materials already exist and must be dealt with after the fact. Green chemistry attempts to limit their production in the first place. As Allison Perry, a junior here at Heidelberg, put it, “Green chemistry goes beyond the short-term activities of recycling and cleaning up litter and focuses on more long-term goals of producing products that create less pollution and are safer for the environment.”

Although our chapter was inactive for a number of years, when I came to Heidelberg about two and a half years ago, I reactivated it.  When submitting our chapter report that year I noticed that we could be considered for a Green Chemistry Award.  I decided to go for it.  We didn’t get it and, looking back, I can see why we didn’t. Our activities were not really in green chemistry but more in sustainability. One of the first things I did was look up the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry on the ACS GCI website. It helped me to think of ways we could take current or planned activities and make them more impactful by incorporating the principles of green chemistry.

When speakers come to campus we ask them about their involvement in green chemistry.  It’s interesting for our student members to hear about new aspects of green chemistry, particularly in industry.  About two years ago, researchers from the Ford Motor Group came to Heidelberg and gave some wonderful talks on the importance of green chemistry. Dr. Deborah F. Mielewski, Senior Technical Leader, Plastics Research and Sustainability at Ford Motor Company, visited Heidelberg and gave a talk about the importance of reducing waste and finding renewable methods to manufacture components of automobiles.  Since then, the student chapter has made an annual visit to her lab to see how green chemistry can be applied in an industrial setting, and we have worked to incorporate green chemistry activities into the yearly agenda.

Ali Bauer, class of 2017, recalls first learning about green chemistry in her freshman year on the trip to Ford’s research plant. She said, “It opened my eyes to new career fields and opportunities to improve products in a green way that I never considered before.” Another student, Lily White, class of 2016, was also affected by the field trip and said, “I definitely didn’t realize how much green chemistry is involved in manufacturing everyday items until we visited the Ford Research Facility and saw how much dedication was going into making green plastics and other materials used in vehicle production.”

At Ford, students can see green chemistry at work in applications such as utilizing crop byproducts for making up part of the bulk material in plastics and using soy-based oils for synthesizing foam for placement into vehicles.

At Heidelberg, we are also very fortunate to have the National Center for Water Quality Research (NCWQR) located on campus. The NCWQR has been a wonderful resource to help promote green chemistry for our chapter. One of our big activities last year, partially sponsored by an ACS Innovation Grant, was to conduct a water study titled How Much P is in your Water?

Dr. Aaron Roerdink, an assistant professor of chemistry at Heidelberg, and I asked local high school science classes if they were interested in sampling their water and trying to understand the solutes it contained.  We live in a rural area and were hoping to show students the effects of agricultural runoff.  The schools that opted to participate were given collection procedures and collected water from a variety of local water sources.  The water was analyzed in the NCWQR and the students in the chapter put on a presentation for the high school classes about the solutes in their water and tried to connect this to the use of chemicals in farming.

During the presentation we discussed ways of preventing fertilizers from washing into the environment (e.g., reformulating the fertilizers, use at the correct time, applying only the amount needed, etc.).  The compounds the students were discussing are not toxins, per say, just too much of a molecule you would most likely find in the system naturally. If we had only analyzed the solutes in the water, it would have been an environmental chemistry activity, rather than a green chemistry one. However, discussing waste prevention in this context helps the students begin to make the connection between their work and the first principle of green chemistry. This will allow them to start to think about how waste prevention can be implemented in the laboratory by redesigning processes or products to use fewer resources and generate less waste.

Some of our chapter members have also worked with the NCWQR to conduct research aimed at quantifying toxins in the environment through new analytical methods that minimize reagents and chemical waste. A collaborative project between NCWQR and the chapter gave students the opportunity to help research and develop new analytical techniques as well as improve instrumentation. It also helped NCWQR decrease their solvent use dramatically for pesticide extractions during soil analysis, including decreases of 89% dichloromethane, 80% methanol, and 92% for acetone. Through this project, students are learning to prevent waste, perform less hazardous synthesis, make careful solvent selections and prevent pollution in real-time.

Attending ACS National Meetings is also a great way to accomplish our goal of learning about and incorporating more green chemistry. Dani Blum, class of 2017, first heard about green chemistry at the 249th National ACS meeting in Denver, CO last spring and reflected that, “It was amazing to learn how far we have come to improve the uses of our resources and processes without expensive chemistries!” The ACS national meetings changed the perspective of other students as well, including Kevin Scrudders, class of 2018, who was introduced to green chemistry at the first conference he attended, where he learned about the importance of, as he put it, “doing chemistry in a way that reduces waste and excludes environmentally unsafe reagents/products.” Students have really latched onto the idea and are very excited about green chemistry when we attend the ACS national meetings; moreover, we use national meetings as a resource to bring ideas back to campus.

Of course, in addition to green chemistry activities, we still reach out to the community about chemistry in general. One of our chapter goals is to get (or keep) children interested in science. One of the big events we put on was a community chemistry demo show titled Chemistry: In Action!  We streamed the show live in case people could not attend.  The chemistry behind the demos was explained and then demonstrated. We had about 125 people attend and it was great to see the kids get into the show.  We also bring groups of kids on campus.  The chapter members put on some demos and let the kids make a polymer using glue and borax.  The kids really enjoy being able to apply chemistry in a hands-on activity.

Bringing green chemistry into our chapter has definitely facilitated its inclusion in my teaching. Our involvement with green chemistry has me constantly thinking about how I could change labs or protocols to make the organic labs greener.  One of the assignments for my organic lecture is to research green chemistry. Students select one of the labs we completed during the semester and redesign it as a green chemistry experiment.  Certainly, it will be an evolving process but my hope is that the chemistry labs will be much greener in the coming years because a basic understanding of green chemistry is essential for current and future chemists.  When I design a research project I always evaluate the type and amount of solvent we will be using.  If we can find a greener method then we will use it to accomplish our project. By incorporating the principles of green chemistry into our research it allows for the students to become better chemists. Ali Bauer (class of 2017) knows that her exposure to green chemistry will give her a competitive edge, helping her succeed in improving products while promoting a cleaner planet.

The students in our chapter are excited about green chemistry and how it enables them to conserve resources, minimize waste and become better chemists. Generating conversations about green chemistry and creating activities around it allows us to take part in a larger movement on and beyond the Heidelberg campus.

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