University of Minnesota
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Chemistry focuses on being green; however, it is not easy

From research to classroom courses and laboratories, and scientific experiments, it is important to be green; however, it is not easy. More and more, green chemistry is becoming a priority for the Department of Chemistry.

Currently, there are two philosophical approaches toward teaching green chemistry, said William Tolman, Department of Chemistry chair. One involves teaching specific green chemistry courses. The other encompasses a comprehensive way of thinking that involves infusing green chemistry into all courses, research, and outreach.

"Because getting the concepts of green chemistry across to everyone is just too important, we need to do both," said Tolman. That is exactly what the Department of Chemistry is doing—teaching specific green chemistry courses, and creating a comprehensive green chemistry mind-set that addresses the entire educational process, including courses, research, and outreach.

Creating a green chemistry mind-set for her colleagues and students has long been a passion for Professor Jane Wissinger, Department of Chemistry organic laboratory director. Green chemistry is benign by design, she said. It entails not using hazardous chemicals, or reducing or eliminating the generation of hazardous substances in the design, manufacture, and use of chemical products. Overarching goals encompass using chemistry to prevent pollution, to meet current needs for chemical products without jeopardizing future needs, and to focus on renewable, sustainable resources.

Reaching beyond chemistry

Wissinger's green chemistry messages reach about 1,000 students per year, and extend far beyond the Department of Chemistry. Only about 120 of those students are chemistry or chemical engineering majors. The rest are focused on other disciplines such as biochemistry, biology, neuroscience, physiology, pre-health, ecology, or biology, society and the environment.

"We are not just sending the message to chemistry majors, but are showing many other students how green chemistry is relevant to their lives," said Wissinger. "It is important that they see how chemists are trying to address problems of sustainability."

Perfect environment

Because organic labs have historically required the use of chemicals and solvents resulting in exposure to and production of hazardous materials, the hands-on, active-learning style of the organic lab setting is the ideal venue to incorporate the principles of green chemistry. Wissinger is careful about choosing which green chemistry experiments to use in the labs, vetting them by colleagues, graduate students, and undergraduate students to ensure that they effectively generate green results: not all do. She asks students to identify how the 12 principles are met or lacking in the experiments that they perform.

Green experiments

Since 2002, Wissinger has been adding green experiments to the organic lab. One of these experiments involves the green synthesis of camphor, which is a versatile chemical compound found in nature. This novel experiment, developed in collaboration with Professor Andrew Harned and his graduate student Patrick Lang, not only satisfies 9 of the 12 principles of green chemistry, but also illustrates how the generated camphor product is used in an active research program. The development and successfully incorporation of this experiment was published in the Journal of Chemical Education in May 2011. Another example of an experiment recently added to the organic laboratory curriculum involves the use of liquid CO2 for the extraction of the essential oil of cloves.

Greening the labs

In addition to experiments, Wissinger also is focused on what she calls "greening the labs," reducing students' exposure to chemicals and reducing the amount of hazardous waste collected. For example, she is making a concerted effort to teach students how to wash glassware with the minimum amount of solvent, typically acetone, needed or to not use acetone at all. She has already noticed that the amount of acetone being using this fall is about a tenth of what used in previous semesters.

"Creating a green mind-set will get all of us thinking about each action that we take," said Wissinger.

Green chemistry curriculum

In addition to the laboratories, teaching a green chemistry course is part of the chemistry curriculum. Along with Professor Marc Hillmyer, Tolman developed a Green Chemistry course that was first taught last year. This course considers key aspects of green chemistry in modern research, academia, and industry. There is an overarching emphasis on relevant green chemistry implications for the environment, technology, and public policy. Students are taught the history, theories, and goals of green chemistry. Other topics taught in the course include the use of safer solvents, and minimization of hazardous by-products and catalysts.

Green research

Both scientists are involved in the Center for Sustainable Polymers, which is at the heart of green chemistry research at the university. Hillmyer is director of the center and one of the leading sustainable polymer science researchers in the world.

The center focuses its research on the challenge of creating advanced synthetic polymers (plastics) from renewable, natural, and sustainable resources instead of finite fossil fuels. Those resources include vegetable oils, starches, sugars, and terpenes (essential organic oils produced by plants, flowers, and conifers). Researchers are especially interested in materials that require low energy input, are non-toxic, and can be composted.

In addition to advancing cutting-edge polymer research at the university, the center focuses on forming partnerships with industries, teaching students about sustainable materials, and educating and engaging the public.

12 Principles of Green Chemistry

Professor Jane Wissinger uses the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry, which were defined in 1998 by Paul T. Anastas and John C. Warner, to guide her undergraduate organic laboratory course. Those 12 principles, paraphrased below, are:

  • preventing waste, rather than treating or cleaning up after it has been created;
  • designing synthetic methods to maximize the incorporation of all materials into the final process (called atom economy);
  • using and producing nontoxic chemicals;
  • designing safer chemicals;
  • using safer solvents and auxiliaries (separation agents);
  • designing energy efficient chemical processes;
  • using renewable raw materials and feedstocks;
  • reducing unnecessary waste-generating derivatives;
  • using catalytic reagents that reduce waste when possible;
  • designing for degradation by using chemical products that break down into innocuous products that are harmless to the environment at the end of their functions;
  • using real-time analysis and in-process monitoring and control to minimize the formation of hazardous substances; and
  • minimizing the potential for chemical accidents.

One green chemistry experiment involves the green synthesis of camphor, which is a versatile chemical compound found in nature. The camphor being produced by the students is being used for research purposes. Shown is camphor isolated by sublimation.