From plastics, to batteries, to pharmaceutical drugs, the work of chemists has had profound effects on human life, but often at the cost of the environment.
Will the next generation of materials be sustainable, too?
This will be on the minds of scientists from around the country at the First Australian Conference on Green and Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering, to be held in Cairns this week.
Managed by the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, the conference celebrates 25 years of green chemistry.
“Green chemistry is all about saying enough is enough,” says Professor Colin Raston, co-chair of the conference and a chemist at Flinders University.
First coined by US chemists Professor John Warner and Professor Paul Anastas, green chemistry revolves around the idea of “benign by design,” making materials with sustainability built in.
Anastas and Warner, who will be presenting the conference, developed 12 principles of green chemistry in 1998.
These principles include things like prevention of waste, use of sustainable feedstocks and designing materials to degrade harmlessly.
“If you’re developing science and technology, then why not put the principles of green chemistry and sustainability issues in general into your ideas at the inception? So you’re not using toxic reagents, you’re minimising energy consumption, you’re minimising the waste stream using renewable resources, and you’ve got scalability factored in,” says Raston.
“Now it’s all that, plus it’s about trying to even make a positive impact on the environment.”
While green chemistry as a concept is 25 years old, Raston says that environmental awareness among chemists was first kickstarted by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring.
“That was that was a turning point for understanding that the activities of Homo sapiens in the chemical arena was a problem.”
But it’s not yet a universal attitude, in a field where much of the revenue comes from substances derived from fossil fuels.
“There’s still researchers who do not put sustainability and green chemistry metrics into their science. It’s an add-on,” says Raston.
Many chemists are used to making molecules that do one job exceptionally well, and Raston says it’s something of a “paradigm shift” to take sustainability into account.
“I probably annoyed a number of people over the years. If someone says ‘I’ve got this amazing molecule extracted, and it’s got anti-cancer activity, now we’re going to make it,’ I’ll say ‘okay, you can go and make it.’
“Then I’ll say: ‘Now go and make it with zero waste’.”
Along with hoping to form a green chemistry division of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, Raston is hoping that the conference will connect like-minded people in Australia.
“Connecting with industry, connecting with governments and connecting with the wider community. So they can see we are serious.”
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