The way contemporary chemists work is a lot different than the way their predecessors worked only a few generations ago. You might think that the change is due to new technologies or breakthroughs in scientific understanding, but that’s only partly right. One of the major reasons chemistry is different today is because of songbirds.
Throughout the 20th century certain human-synthesized chemical compounds in the environment became concentrated in dangerous levels in the food chain. The most noticeable result was the near extinction of many different species of birds, something Rachel Carson warned about in her 1962 book “Silent Spring.”
Carson’s book became a cause célèbre, and the author even testified before Congress the year after her book appeared. After looking at Carson’s findings, chemists knew they would need to find a better way of doing things. Their answer was green chemistry.
Green Chemistry is Efficiency-Minded
“Green chemistry means many different things,” says Jennifer LaFontaine, a Senior Director in Pfizer’s Oncology Medicinal Chemistry Group. “It finds the safest materials available, it uses them efficiently and it makes sure that we don’t create an untenable waste stream.”
The focus on safety and efficiency is especially important when it comes to solvents. Used to dissolve materials and make solutions, solvents are essential to most chemical reactions. Unfortunately, some can also be powerful pollutants. Alcohols like ethanol, paint thinners like turpentine, and nail polish removers like acetone are all examples of solvents that can cause environmental damage. Using the minimum amount of these types of solvents to get the job done in the lab is a key part of green chemistry.
Green Chemistry is Elegant
“In many ways, green chemistry fits into the idea of making chemistry elegant, which is something chemists are always interested in,” says Lafontaine. “Elegance involves being efficient, but it also forces us to be creative in the way we solve problems, including the type of problems that come from unsustainable waste.”
While efficiency is essential, elegance involves something more. It means designing experiments and products using the most effective materials, being resourceful in solving problems like the creation of environmental pollutants and creating new processes that work better on a number of levels.
Looking for elegant responses to the challenges posed by solvent use means designing solutions that maintain the utility of solvents while simultaneously reducing their negative environmental impacts. By being more imaginative in the lab, scientists may find an elegant solution that accentuates the positive aspects of solvents while reducing its negative effects.
And practicing elegant chemistry has its own rewards. By employing these principles, scientists at Pfizer have reduced the harmful effect of solvents on the environment and garnered praise from regulators. The company’s La Jolla research and development site even won a Clean Air Champions award from the County of San Diego in recognition of the Pfizer La Jolla Green Chemistry team’s efforts to cut solvent usage.
Green Chemistry is a Conversation-Starter
Green chemistry has also started an ongoing discussion in the scientific community about how to reduce negative environmental impacts. Part of fostering this discussion involves introducing new chemists to green fundamentals. Teaching the type of creativity behind green chemistry involves educating young chemists about how to put green principles into practice. That’s one reason Pfizer has been conducting regular green chemistry workshops since 2003. Originally the sessions were held at the company’s research and development site in Groton, Connecticut. But over the last decade the workshops have gone on the road, with the company conducting sessions at various university campuses across the United States.
“The real value of green principles is when we use them to influence how we do things in the lab and then make these practices routine,” says LaFontaine. “Teaching these principles to young chemists is one way we can ensure green practices remain a regular part of lab work.”
With green principles now influencing how labs operate, chemists are in a better position than ever before to not only think globally, but act locally.