Feel free to join in to ask, answer, or discuss questions even if you're not an official panelist! We welcome the entire green chemistry community.
We select the challenges specifically to serve our goal: teaching students about technical considerations of material selection within an interdisciplinary setting. So, we don't take on broader questions of sustainability. We find a chemical function in a material, product, or manufacturing process that is currently being served by a hazardous chemical and walk students through the process of identifying potentially safer alternatives. They have to evaluate technical feasibility and relative hazard of both the existing chemical and potential substitutes. And we teach them to look broadly, beyond drop-in chemical substitution to process redesign.
The challenges to us have been mostly about intellectual property and the mission of the university versus the goals of a particular client. This usually involves a case-by-case review of the different needs of the parties and how we can limit our work to provide sector-wide solutions to the client, without compromising their proprietary property. Sometimes the fit is not there and we have to not take on an opportunity.
The magic (and also the curse) is that we're operating in this interdisciplinary space. So, while the course is listed in the School of Public Health, students enlist from many other schools and departments. The challenge is that no one division sees it as "their" course, and we have to fund it through grants (EPA's Pollution Prevention program most recently), and also through small contributions from participating companies. But we're clear that the products of the course are all open access, we don't sign NDAs, and we're working on problems that are relevant to a whole industry sector, rather than being the profit engine for a particular company.
The Greener Solutions course is by design interdisciplinary and project driven, so it is difficult to require base courses of the students and get the talent mix that we want: public health, toxicology, engineering, chemistry. That said, we do offer courses as part of Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry that are required for our SAGE IGERT fellows (two year funding). The Greener Solutions course, and introduction to Green Chemistry and energy, and opportunities to pursue independent study courses related to projects that were started in the regular classes.
That is good feedback. From an industry standpoint, Kaj, do you seek employees with an understanding of green chemistry/sustainability all else being equal?
Hi Ernesto! Thanks for a few excellent questions. Let me try to answer them from my perspective.
You raise an interesting and timely question about GMO and of course this is being developed as a foundational business model by several companies, such as Amyris, so this is a reality from the science and technology standpoint. What society probably needs more of is experts to guide us in the wise use of such technologies, and the methods to assess impact. In my opinion, these should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis on their relative merits and impacts.
I agree with Tom, and it might be helpful if I shared my experiences from participating in the course last year.
Here are several ways in which the course helped me professionally. (1) The course instructors did a fantastic job teaching these concepts and providing a framework to evaluate safety aspects of chemicals, thereby teaching an important and valued skill in industry. (2) The course also centers around collaboration between industry partners and students, which allowed our student group to learn about green chemistry challenges faced by industry and build relationships with representatives from industry. (3) During the course, your student team develops a proposal for addressing a green chemistry challenge, which provides an opportunity for you to contribute a unique perspective to this problem which you can build upon.
All of the points above were important complements to my graduate studies. In collaboration with Method and the USDA, our proposal also served as a starting point for ongoing laboratory work.
The problems a student might work on in their undergraduate or graduate courses may not seem to have much in common with problems faced in industry. However, in my experience, seemingly unrelated studies during my graduate and undergraduate courses and research have been enormously helpful as we continue laboratory testing of the ideas proposed in this course.
In response to your third question, there's tremendous potential for creativity in looking beyond drop-in replacements to existing chemistry.
In the Greener Solutions course we have the freedom to think very creatively, and so we work with our students to reduce the challenge to a chemical function, say, cross-linking (in a challenge to replace formaldehyde in permanent press fabrics), or UV-activated phase-change (in a challenge to improve the resins used in 3D printing).
The students then take that chemical function and query the biological literature, looking for where in nature there is cross-linking or coordinated phase-change. This approach takes them far beyond the quick drop-in chemical replacements based on existing chemistry.
Other programs --such as the EPA's DfE program-- have different constraints, and they're limited to considering existing alternatives, and that's inherently more limited.