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From chemical reaction to climate action, how chemists bring sustainable science to UBC

Chemistry generally involves the use of hazardous substances and produces a good deal of waste

By Brenden Dixon , in Education Environment , on March 26, 2018

While many scientists work to develop sustainable cars and energy, local chemists are now trying to green-up their own industry and inspire a generation of eco-friendly workers.

Over the past five years, a growing number of UBC chemistry staff and students have pressed scientists to work more sustainably both on and off campus.

“Right now in research, not many people are actually considering the environment to be honest,” said Crystal Geng, co-chair and co-founder of GreenChemUBC (GCU).

Fusing science with environmental activism, Geng is among a group of students spearheading the green chemistry movement on campus through research and education.

The cost of chemistry

Chemistry, in general, involves the use of hazardous substances, requires a lot of water and energy and produces a good deal of waste. Some waste is inevitable, but a lot isn’t.

“There’s a lot that we can do,” said fellow GCU co-chair and co-founder Namrata Jain, but “it involves a lot of initial investment, which is not people’s main priority right now.”

For example, vacuum aspirators, which use air instead of water to create a vacuum in chemistry department laboratories, could easily be installed to reduce water waste. Sorting and recycling systems for organic solvents, which can be reused, could similarly reduce waste and save on chemical purchases.

The fixes are technically simple, but the sizable cost has held the department back, Jain said. 

The GCU hosts events and seminars, posts weekly trivia questions and posters to help educate scientists on other ways to clean-up their chemistry.

The group hosted ‘HallowGreen’ in October 2017, a green-chemistry-themed escape room. Jain was thrilled to see the event draw 50 students engaged in the field.

“We’re getting more people on our council, people want to join us, people want to help us,” Jain said. “I’m pretty hopeful.”

Led by GCU founder Love-Ese Chile, Geng and Jain are primarily self-educated green chemists. They studied the environmental aspects of chemistry in their free time and ultimately founded the organization in 2016.

Chemists are sometimes unaware of the environmental impact of their work because they are so focused on fine-tuning reactions and maximizing yields to meet the demands of research and industry.

As a result, the chemical manufacturing industry alone spends millions of dollars a year on clean-up efforts, $70.6 million in 2009 on water treatment alone, according to Statistics Canada.

“The more you read the more you realize that there’s a lot to be solved,” Jain said.

Geng, Jain and others at GCU are focused on the prevention side of the spectrum. They encourage chemists to consider the environmental consequences of their work first, rather than clean up later.

The chemical waste disposal shed behind UBC’s chemistry building where everything from halogens, broken glass and other materials end up.
The chemical waste disposal shed behind UBC’s chemistry building where everything from halogens, broken glass and other materials end up.

Teaching green chemistry

Professor Parisa Mehrkhodavandi serves as the faculty advisor for the GCU and does her own green-chemistry-related work on biodegradable plastics. She is currently using plant material to create versatile forms of PLA (polylactic acid) plastic that is both robust and compostable. 

The professor started incorporating a green chemistry module into her third-year catalysis course in 2016.

“The students, this generation, really are feeling it,” she explained. “It’s the students who are driving this, which I’m profoundly grateful for.”

She hopes more of her colleagues will also include sustainability in their curricula. “I think it’s more effective if every course has a component – if it becomes woven through everything that we teach,” Mehrkhodavandi said.

Mehrkhodavandi also helps run the CREATE Sustainable Synthesis program, created by Professor Laurel Schafer five years ago to help students gain experience with environment-related jobs and similar green projects.

“I wanted to provide knowledge of sustainability not otherwise accessible in the program,” said Schafer, who is currently developing waste-free manufacturing processes for the pharmaceutical industry said.

The two-year program is embedded in students’ graduate degrees and teaches them about green chemistry and business through coursework and internships.

Placing students in eco-friendly industries also helps them find jobs and contribute to the cutting edge of their fields, Schafer said.

“The feedback has been really overwhelmingly positive,” she said.

Rebecca DiPucchio, a recent Sustainable Synthesis student, said the program gave her group practical tips on how to incorporate green chemistry into their different disciplines.

“Can we use the most benign solvents possible? Can we reduce the by-products?” DiPucchio said. “It’s important to be aware of the impacts of what you’re doing.”

DiPucchio’s own work involves developing effective and inexpensive catalysts, substances that speed up chemical reactions, to minimize waste.

“There’s not one benchmark way to be a green scientist or an environmentally-friendly scientist,” she said.

The next steps

Jain and Geng aspire to expand the reach of green chemistry into the department even further. They would like to integrate green principles into undergraduate labs and, like Queen’s University, launch a course devoted to the topic.

The GCU is also starting to organize department recycling drives to mitigate waste management problems on campus.

The pair said the challenge to all of their objectives is securing funding.

“We are only starting small in the chemistry department, but we hope we can also expand and influence other departments,” Geng said.