Message from the Director: Critical Materials & Endangered Elements

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By David Constable, Director, ACS Green Chemistry Institute®

This month in The Nexus, we are highlighting the topic of critical materials and endangered elements. I would suggest that this is something often overlooked by most people, including chemists and engineers, because few of us have a good sense of where things ultimately come from and what it takes to get them to us, in whatever form we may use them. That is to say, we don’t think about how gold is mined from a vein of mineral rich rock, extracted from a mountain of that rock, and further refined and/or reacted and/or coated/adsorbed/absorbed onto a substrate to be used in a chemical process, usually as a catalyst.

Yes, metals like gold are chemically interesting as elements and nanoparticles, but they come to us at a huge environmental, social and economic cost that is not represented by the price we pay. At the ACS Green Chemistry Institute®, we are working to bring subjects like this to the attention of chemists and chemical engineers across the chemical enterprise, whether they are in academia, government or in business.

As the Director of the ACS GCI, I find that one of the most exciting parts of my work is encountering the wealth of green chemistry and engineering information, expertise and opportunity people are bringing forward in a variety of places and professions.

su835342_team_001.jpgAt the end of April, I was privileged to once again be a judge for the EPA’s People, Prosperity and the Planet Student Design Competition for Sustainability (‘3P’ for short) competition at the Washington DC Convention center. A total of 35 University and College student teams presented reports of their Phase I work, and plans for Phase II. The EPA was only able to award 7 teams with Phase II grants, but the talent and ingenuity all the students demonstrated remains an inspiration. As these students ably showed, solutions that may solve some of the world’s sustainability problems don’t always entail large costs but a new and different way of looking at old problems. The P3 Competition was held at the same time as the USA Science & Engineering Festival and it was absolutely overwhelming to take in all the STEM-related organizations and activities that were offered. It was great to see all the young kids getting hooked on science and engineering. Even better to see how their parents were encouraging them by bringing them.

pine_resin.jpgJust a few weeks ago I was invited to speak at the Pine Chemicals Association’s (PCA) annual meeting in Florida. The PCA represents a comparatively small part of the chemical sector, but one which is based on chemicals derived from trees. Part of the supply comes from waste created during paper manufacture, and part of it comes directly from resins tapped from living trees. The industry represents a model for waste to chemicals and chemicals from trees that the world needs to replicate and expand. Exploiting the chemical diversity in natural products and waste is a great opportunity that most of us just don’t think about.

Since the early days of green chemistry and engineering, waste elimination and pollution prevention has been closely allied with the idea of toxics elimination or reduction. Early in my career, I began working for a large chemical company, and I remember the introduction of the Toxics Reduction Inventory (TRI). Talk about a rush by industry to reduce its emissions so that any given plant was not at the top of the list! So, it was interesting to be invited to speak in early May, at the Toxics Release Inventory Conference convened by the EPA and Dillard University’s Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.

Toxic chemical reduction remains a major objective for the EPA and despite enormous advances by industry and government (the DOD and the defense industry are major TRI emitters) there is still a lot to be done. While green chemistry and engineering can and do address toxics elimination and/or reduction, the fact of the matter is that the chemical enterprise is built on toxic chemicals. Just visit any research laboratory in academia and you will have a sense of how entrenched and oblivious research professors at R1 universities are to toxic chemicals. The more toxic, explosive, and exquisitely hazardous the chemicals are, the greater the assertion to funding agencies and journals that “good science” is being carried out. And what is done at university is hard to undo when a student goes on to establish a career in academia, government or industry.

I also had the privilege of speaking at the BMS Green Chemistry Symposium last week. Bristol-Myers Squibb is a member of the ACS GCI Pharmaceutical Roundtable, and I have long admired BMS as a company that is working to operationalize sustainability and green chemistry throughout their organization. Like the other pharmaceutical companies, there are always challenges in implementation, especially in early parts of product development. This is why it is so important to embed sustainable and green chemistry as a way of thinking about every problem or opportunity, not something we do that is extra or bolted on after we achieve a technical solution. I am always very grateful for all the work many are doing to implement green chemistry and engineering, despite the many challenges they face.

As always, let me know what you think.


"2013 winning team from the University of Massachusetts - Lowell" Photo credit: US EPA

"Pine resin is a raw material for chemical production" Photo credit: Wikipedia

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