Chemistry with a social conscience

Could the chemicals on which our growing prosperity depend, be safer for us and for the environment, more affordable, and still support a profitable industry? Many in the global chemical industry think so.

Driven by that conviction, they are changing how they do business, influenced by economic need, regulatory frameworks and societal expectations.

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“Many in the global chemical industry think that the chemicals we use could be made safer for us and the environment”

Chemistry is the study of matter and energy; the make up and structure of substances, how their atoms and molecules interact and how that behaviour can be harnessed to transform materials, medicines, and technologies. 

Scale, energy, chemicals, toxicity, and waste are all aspects of chemical processes which come under enormous scrutiny – our 21 century challenge is uncovering ways to reduce these processes efficiently while retaining quality products. The need to measure specific chemicals in a complex mixture is becoming increasingly necessary as the need to reduce waste, and track the source of waste becomes important.

Sustainable chemistry

Sustainable, or green chemistry, seeks to develop new materials and processes that:

  • are safe
  • are environmentally benign
  • use renewable raw materials
  • maximise resource efficiency by conserving non-renewables
  • minimise energy requirements, and 
  • reduce waste in all stages of the product life cycle.  

Though only six are mentioned, there are 12 principles of green chemistry that are widely accepted as important. While making and measuring substances remains core to chemistry, it's how we make the substances and what we measure that is changing the face of chemistry now and in the future.

Green chemistry applies the fundamental knowledge of chemical processes and products as you have been learning about in your schooling to achieve practical solutions.

Green chemistry is not environmental chemistry, but both sub-disciplines can work together to make our planet a better place to live. Green chemistry is about being proactive, planning and designing processes, environmental chemistry is more reactive and after processing.

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“While significant advances have been made in the area, there is still much work to do in terms of practice and regulation. Are you up for the challenge?”

There are many examples of sustainable chemistry in action. The use of biomass to make polylactic acid polymers through the fermentation of corn, or from the conversion of carbon dioxide to make useful polymers for carpets are two such examples.

Using supercritical carbon dioxide (a liquid form of CO2) as a dry cleaning agent over harmful chemicals is another. This is an example of a solventless process. Biodegradable polymers, such as those contained in many shopping centres globally use bacteria to degrade the polymeric materials in non-hazardous by-products.  Finally, the use of biodiesel as a replacement fuel can be prepared from waste products (oils amd fats such as those used in cooking) or cultivated plants specifically grown for this purpose.

While significant advances have been made in the area, there is still much work to do in terms of practice and regulation. Are you up for the challenge?

Steven Langford, School of Chemistry, Monash University (Aus)

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