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Message from the Director

Contributor III
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Last month I spoke of a few events I had attended and why these might be of broader interest.  I’d like to beg your indulgence to let me do the same thing again this month.  I think it’s important to highlight the progress being made in sustainable and green chemistry and that message seems to get lost sometimes in the rush of our daily routines.

Prior to the 19th of March I don’t think I had ever heard of the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) an organization that was started by the United Nations Development Program, the UN Environment Program, and the World Bank but is now a separate entity.  It is basically a funding entity for the UN and World Bank to promote environmental programs in developing countries around the world. Prior to the 19th, GEF had little knowledge of green chemistry, so they held a one-day workshop to try and come up to speed on what green chemistry is and look at a few examples of companies that are using green chemistry to make new products or products in a more sustainable way.

By Dr. David C. Constable, Ph.D., ACS GCI Director

I was particularly struck by a presentation made by the CEO of Myriant, Steve Gatto.  Steve, gave an outstanding presentation of Myriant’s vision for developing succinic acid from bio-based feedstocks.  Perhaps the reason I resonated with his story is that he is making the “drop into place” approach to market entry work.  When it comes to most companies trying to enter the biofuels market, they are competing with the petrochemical industry that has been refined, so to speak, over the course of 150 or more years.  It’s a difficult trajectory for a small company to make an entry in a price competitive, highly optimized market, and the commercialization highway is littered with a great many start-ups who had a great vision, but the economics were not in their favor.

What sets Myriant apart in a potentially risky market is that unlike many feedstocks from petroleum, they can produce succinic acid for less than it can be produced from petroleum, and it’s a C-4 chemistry ready for diversification into many different chemicals and potential products.  As a matter of fact, Myriant is in the happy place of having excess demand for a product it has yet to produce.  In addition, its life cycle profile is considerably more beneficial, and it is made from sorghum or other plants–plants that are not competing for an end use as food.

Unlike my experience at GEF where I had not heard of them, I just returned from the ACS National meeting and as usual, there were a considerable number of opportunities to glimpse what is being done in sustainable and green chemistry.  I had the opportunity to attend the Committee on Environmental Improvement’s (CEI) meetings on Saturday and witnessed their activities on public policy, education and member involvement.  We will be working to better coordinate GCI activities with CEI activities as we go forward; there is a great opportunity for synergistic impact. There were also a variety of presentations related to sustainable and green chemistry. I wasn’t able to attend as many sessions as I might have liked, but there were certainly a great breadth of presentations that spanned a range of interests for anyone and everyone in sustainable and green chemistry.

One notable presentation was the Kavli Lecture given by Daniel Nocera on his “Artificial Leaf.” Regardless of what you think about the long-term potential of the approach he has taken to split water, the important take-away for me is that sometimes you have to step back, look at a problem in a new way, and ask fundamental questions that go against existing dogma and paradigms.  Then you have to have the courage of your convictions to carry on.  Many times it means you work in isolation because few see the importance in what you are undertaking.  That seems to be a hallmark of sustainable and green chemistry as the field struggles to gain acceptance as “good science.”   I’m thankful that there are enough researchers who are looking at the world differently, who are asking the right questions, and who are going to be the ones to make a difference.

As always, let me know what you think.


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