Contributed by David Constable, Director, ACS Green Chemistry Institute®
Last week I had the privilege of seeing the work of three National Science Foundations centers. There are a total of eight centers that have received Phase II funding since 2007, and I would like to list them here:
Centers for Chemical Innovation – Phase II Awards
Center for Enabling New Technologies through Catalysis (Karen Goldberg, University of Washington) FY2007-2016
CCI Solar Fuels (Harry Gray, Caltech) FY2008-2017
Center for Chemistry at the Space-Time Limit (V. Ara Apkarian, UC Irvine) FY2009-2018
Center for Chemical Evolution (Nicholas Hud, Georgia Institute of Technology) FY 2010-2014
Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry (Douglas Keszler, Oregon State) FY 2011-2015
Center for Selective C-H Functionalization (Huw Davies, Emory University) FY 2012-2016
Center for Aerosol Implications for Climate and Environment (Kimberly Prather, UC San Diego) FY 2013-2017
Center for Sustainable Polymers (Marc Hillmyer, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities) FY 2014-2018
A further three centers received Phase I funding in 2012 and these are the ones I saw:
FY 2012 Phase I Awards – possible Phase II in FY2015
Center for Capture and Conversion of CO2(Tayhas Palmore, Brown University)
Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (Robert Hamers, University of Wisconsin Madison)
Center for the Sustainable Use of Renewable Feedstocks (Peter Ford, University of California Santa Barbara)
It is great to see all the work these various centers are doing and I hope you take the time to look into them a bit more closely. The work that these centers are doing will be transformative and synergistic, and I heartily endorse and commend the NSF for continuing with this program. Unquestionably there is some great science being done at these centers, and it is very exciting to see the advances they are making.
Acknowledging this, the interesting thing to me is that many of the professors, graduate students and students in these centers, for the most part, don’t self-identify as doing green chemistry, despite the fact that many things they are doing, particularly the strategic aim of the center, is clearly embodied or envisioned in principles of green chemistry and engineering. Also, it is my experience that many chemistry researchers don’t pay much attention to things that are easy for them to change like solvent or reagent selection, relying instead on traditional reagents and solvents that shouldn't be used. I also see no real evidence of taking mass or energy efficiency into account, and thinking from a life cycle perspective is not generally thought about. This is an unfortunate state of affairs, but it does reflect the reality of most chemistry research at major universities.
As I find myself in discussions with academic researchers at all levels, I consistently hear the same themes in defending their research practices. They include such things as “we’re only doing proof of concept work,” or “it’s important to just see if the hypothesis works before we pay attention to whether or not something is “green” or “sustainable”,” or “we know that using gold is not something we can do commercially, but we want to learn on a well-behaved system before we move to the real world application.” And so on, and so on. When I ask how well a model system in early chemistry research translates to real world environments, the answer is usually that it doesn't.
This in many ways sums up the dilemma that is faced by traditional chemistry researchers when they attempt to do research that is use-inspired or biomimetic. Suddenly there is the problem that surface effects, solvent effects, ionic effects, morphology, and so on, are incredibly important variables and our reductionist way of doing chemistry (i.e., holding one variable constant at a time) is not quite up to the task of understanding complex systems. We generally don’t teach statistical design of experiment and the use of principal components analysis or other related statistical techniques that may help us understand complex systems, so we go back to what we know and remain in two or perhaps three dimensions. The idea that one needs to look at the complex interactions in a system, and that the selection of boundary conditions exerts a critical influence over the chemistry of the system is not something many chemists seem to have a good handle on.
I am hopeful, however, that as more of these centers are funded and as more research at the interface of chemistry with biology, materials, engineering and other disciplines and sub-disciplines takes place, that more chemistry researchers will pay greater attention to all the principles of green chemistry and engineering. It is in the consideration of many of these principles, in embracing greater complexity in experimental systems, and by incorporating greater systems-level thinking that we will solve many of the sustainability challenges facing society.There is no lack of fun and interesting research to be done, and I am looking forward to the next generation of chemists to hit their stride and begin to tackle these challenges one-by-one.
As always, please do let me know what you think.
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