Universities play a vital role in supporting research and educating students to understand how chemistry and chemical design can affect health and sustainability. On Thursday, April 16, 2015 the FAS Green Program and the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology joined together to host Professor Wei Zhang, the Director of the Center for Green Chemistry at the University of Massachusetts Boston, for a talk about the role of green chemistry at research universities like Harvard.
As Director of the Center for Green Chemistry, Professor Zhang is on the front lines of a movement to train more environmentally-conscious chemists. The discussion provided a great opportunity to explore what green chemistry means for Harvard, and the role the University can play as it relates to our Sustainability Plan and creating a more sustainable campus community.
Professor Zhang was introduced by CCB Director of Laboratories and FAS Science Director of Graduate Studies Allen Aloise who highlighted the department’s goals as they relate to Harvard’s Sustainability Plan and campus health and well-being. He discussed the responsibility and role that all chemists play in green chemistry, and in creating and sustaining a healthy environment.
He posed several questions relating to the regulation and non-regulation of various toxic chemicals and hazardous substances that we encounter on a daily basis alluding to the necessity of responsible decision making in our research labs. “In our research, and our careers, we must endeavor for a toxicological understanding of the compounds we create and assume the responsibility for determining their ecological fate," said Aloise.
The concept of Green Chemistry
The talk highlighted the concept of green chemistry, its history, and the educational opportunities it presents. Green Chemistry is defined as, “the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances." ¹ The 12 Principles of Green Chemistry were established by UMass Boston alumni Paul Anastas, Director, Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering and Teresa and H. John Heinz III Professor in the Practice of Chemistry for the Environment, School of Forestry & Environmental Studies at Yale University, and John Warner, President and Chief Technology Officer at the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry. The concept of green chemistry originates from the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, which defined “source reduction” and made it official policy to reduce the amounts of hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants being released into the environment either directly or through various waste streams.
In our research, and our careers, we must endeavor for a toxicological understanding of the compounds we create and assume the responsibility for determining their ecological fate.
-Allen Aloise, CCB Director of Laboratories and FAS Science Director of Graduate Studies
Professor Zhang made it clear that, “green chemistry is not an independent field but a philosophy that will be a non-separable part of chemistry.” He stressed that it will be necessary for the new generation of chemists to learn and practice green chemistry in order to clean up our environment, and they must understand what it means in order to do better as a chemist. He recommended that researchers reevaluate current projects to enhance the green component and address the problem while expanding their green chemistry “tool box.”
Incorporating into practice
Zhang focused on the fact that it is essential to have a concrete understanding of toxicology in the design and synthesis of new compounds. At the end of the discussion it was noted that student driven initiatives to impact daily practice in the lab, in addition to grant proposal and journal publication driven incentives, play a major role in moving green chemistry forward. The important role that partnerships between environmental, health, and safety departments and sustainability offices play in spreading the visibility and understanding of the philosophy of green chemistry was also emphasized.
Researchers that attended the presentation are already actively looking for opportunities to incorporate green chemistry in their research as they make day-to-day decisions. Some may already be utilizing the philosophy without specifically labeling it green chemistry.
A PhD Candidate in the Jacobsen Research Group shared, “I think that the talk really emphasized the extent to which the green chemistry philosophy could have a positive impact on our daily work as researchers. So often, we focus on system-level controls (like power generation/purchasing or on exhaust capture and processing in commodity chemical production) that we forget to notice the cumulative impact of our individual actions in academic labs.” She concluded that, “I also see the opportunity for increased conversation to foster a rich cross-disciplinary exchange of ideas for contributing to innovative green research initiatives.”
A Post-Doctoral Fellow with the Kahne Research Group noted that, “It would be good to introduce green chemistry as a philosophy to first-year graduate students in the fall. The department would definitely benefit from it both environmentally and financially.”
A focus on health and well-being
Harvard’s holistic Sustainability Plan, released last year, highlights health and well-being as one of its five core pillars in the roadmap to building a sustainable campus community. There are several commitments and standards under health and well-being, with human exposure to toxic chemicals and their release into the environment being a main focus. The Sustainability Plan also establishes a commitment to identify and target at least two significant chemicals of concern for which viable alternatives exist, and develop a plan for eliminating exposure to those chemicals on campus.
It would be good to introduce green chemistry as a philosophy to first-year graduate students in the fall. The department would definitely benefit from it both environmentally and financially.
-Post-doctoral fellow in the Kahne Research Group
Exploring green chemistry at Harvard utilizes the three foundations of research, teaching, and institutional action to provide opportunities for postdocs, undergraduate, graduate and PhD students to learn about toxicology and the design of chemical products and processes. It adds another dynamic to the “living lab” concept of using the campus to generate beneficial and scalable outcomes and solutions that can be easily replicated by other universities and private industries. And perhaps most importantly, developing a strong foundation and understanding of green chemistry will help enhance students’ understanding of chemical design, life cycle analysis, and environmental policy so they may take these concepts with them as they move beyond the Harvard community and become professionals in their field.
Learn more about Harvard's Green Labs Program.