Taking green chemistry global

McGill and Yale researchers, supported by U.N. agency, run training workshops around world

Green chemistry is just over 25 years old. Over this period, the drive to create safer chemicals and more sustainable industrial processes has become increasingly accepted, and profitable. Estimates suggest the annual global market for green chemicals, from renewable feedstocks to green polymers, may reach nearly $100 billion by 2020.

Until now, green chemistry – which aims to minimize the use and generation of hazardous substances – has been picking up steam mainly in the developed world. But this growing field, along with much of the research behind it, is just starting to spread beyond North America and Western Europe. Can the movement gain traction in other, less affluent, regions?

Experts from Yale and McGill universities, supported by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), are trying to help make this happen. Over the past several months, the researchers have run workshops for academic and industry participants in a half-dozen countries around the globe, from Brazil and Colombia to Serbia and South Africa – providing a toolbox of environmentally friendly techniques to people who, in turn, could train others.

“Translating knowledge from academia to business can seed ideas and produce concrete solutions,” says McGill chemistry professor Audrey Moores, who led the workshop in Pretoria. “For example, people from the mining industry in South Africa were very interested when I talked about techniques for the treatment of ores that involve using mechanical force to achieve chemical transformations. They had never heard of this possibility before, because the research is only emerging now within the scientific community.”

For participants, the attraction of learning about more sustainable technologies lay not only in reducing environmental harm, but also in the potential long-term financial benefits of going green – though in some cases there were no immediate or simple solutions to specific problems.

“One of the biggest environmental issues in South Africa is that we generate the bulk of our energy from burning coal,” said Rhoanda Jansen van Rensburg, a consultant from Pretoria. “Affordable gas finds that can replace coal may reduce these carbon emissions, but may also reduce the coal mining work force.”

All agreed that starting the conversation between green chemistry researchers and industry was a first step in the right direction.

Seeding new ideas

In Serbia, one of the major environmental issues is pollution caused by the mining industry. During the workshop in Belgrade, run by McGill professor Tomislav Friščić, participants brainstormed about using microorganisms to clean up the landscape and to enhance the separation and exploitation of mineral resources such as copper, lead or zinc.

“After much discussion, we came to have a clearer grasp of the technological and economic opportunities that existed in the region, and how best to capitalize on them,” Friščić says.

In the space of a week, the trainers from McGill delivered two-thirds of a semester’s course in green chemistry to the participants. For trainers and participants alike, it was an intense, exhilarating and sometimes challenging experience – involving frank exchanges of opinion.

“When you bring industry and academia and consultants together, it takes some time for a cross-pollination of ideas,” says Karolina Mellor, program manager at Yale’s Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering. She created the framework and materials for the workshops and co-facilitated each one. “Workshops like these are not just about delivering content. They give opportunities for like-minded people to come together to build a community around green chemistry.”

Because developing countries often aren’t saddled with old-tech infrastructure (such as widespread telephone lines), introducing innovative techniques can also spark rapid industrial changes “because they are able to build from scratch,” notes McGill chemistry professor Chao-Jun Li, who led the workshop in Colombia. “Think of cell phone adoption in countries in Africa or in India.”

Over the next year, there are plans to build a compendium of information about the full range of current green chemistry techniques and technologies so that workshop participants will have tools to refer to as they move forward.