A big part of implementing green chemistry in industry is the task of identifying and selecting product or process chemistries that are safer, less resource-intensive, and also functionally better than those we currently use. That involves complex judgments and comparisons with many dimensions. Figuring out how to make multifaceted comparisons to support scientifically informed judgments is the domain of alternatives assessment (AA). Anyone involved in green chemistry should be familiar with this idea.
The SAGE IGERT Fellowship at BCGC supports UC Berkeley graduate students conducting research related to green chemistry and green energy. The fellowship began in 2013 and now, two years later, there are nineteen trainees and alum doing amazing green work on campus.
We went out to speak to them about their research…and a few other fun things. We asked all the trainees to describe their work in the simplest terms possible: using only the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language (thanks to the Up-goer text editor). We also asked the students for a recommendation–a bright new green idea in the world that they’re excited about–and got some great responses. So click through the gallery and get to know the BCGC SAGE IGERT trainees!
I first fell in love with molecules in my sophomore organic chemistry course. I remember commenting to my lab partner that organic chemistry problems were much more interesting than crossword puzzles, and they should be included in newspapers (with spelling as poor as mine, crosswords were never very fun). After failing to convince others of the merits of Sunday chemistry problems in the newspaper, I entertained myself by digging into the chemistry of the materials and products in our everyday world. Understanding the design and use of molecules has become a life-long endeavor. These last five years at the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry (BCGC) have been wonderful, providing me with the opportunity to deepen my appreciation of chemistry and the larger social, economic, and political structures that influence the selection of chemicals.
The mission of the BCGC is to advance the design, adoption, and use of inherently safer and more sustainable chemicals. We have made great strides in the past five years to normalize Green Chemistry and sustainability within the culture of chemistry. We have also succeeded in getting faculty and students outside of chemistry to be interested in how chemicals and chemistry both contribute to and can help solve many of the modern era’s environmental and health challenges. Our students and faculty have also spent an extraordinary amount of time translating the principles of Green Chemistry to broader audiences, including providing advice and training to state regulators, business, and K-12 students. These educational, research, and engagement projects have helped grow our Center from a handful of students, staff, and faculty into a program that has made lasting impacts on the way the people approach chemicals on and off campus.
We have be able to successfully bring faculty and students from a broad range of disciplines together to research and discuss both the drivers and barriers to Green Chemistry adoption. In the beginning, students and faculty struggled to find common language and approaches, slowing our progress on interdisciplinary initiatives. After a few iterations, however, we found the best way to remove these barriers was to assemble interdisciplinary teams of students within a classroom setting and have them work together to address materials selection challenges. These classes and projects have challenged the faculty to think and teach in new and more interactive ways, which has strengthened our ability to collaborate. By focusing on projects rather than lectures, we have been able to avoid trying to make everyone an expert on everything, and instead have focused on teaching techniques for productive collaboration and communication. The Greener Solutions program grew out of this approach and is now one of our flagship programs.
Greener Solutions has been a success because it simultaneously advances our educational, research, and engagement approaches to promoting Green Chemistry. During our early days as a Center we struggled to find ways to engage productively with external stakeholders. We spent too much time talking about what we might do and not enough time talking with people who were interested in solving particular chemical challenges. The Greener Solutions program partners interdisciplinary teams of students with external partners who have chemistry challenges. This is great for our students, who crave real-world application of their deep technical knowledge. It is beneficial for our partners, who gain insights into their chemistry challenges and have the opportunity to work with some of Berkeley’s best students. The program has also been a great testing ground for new research projects and approaches.
In just five years, BCGC has had a large and lasting impact on the educational landscape at UC Berkeley. Our initial grant funding in 2010 from the Cal EPA focused on the development of Green Chemistry undergraduate chemistry laboratory curriculum and the development of an interdisciplinary graduate course. By 2012, our team had managed to incorporate a dozen new experiments into the curriculum and, more importantly, we also helped create action within the Department of Chemistry to renovate all of the undergraduate labs and put Green Chemistry and sustainability at the core of this initiative. The Department went on to raise 10 million dollars for this initiative including a three million dollar gift from the Dow Foundation. Similarly, our interdisciplinary graduate class, first offered in 2011, has grown into an NSF funded educational program that funds 25 graduate students from departments across campus. We now offer two graduate classes and are continuing to engage more students on issues related to Green Chemistry.
This is an exciting time for the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry; in many ways we are still getting started. Institutional change is slow, but after five years we have built some momentum, and I believe that we will be able to have an even bigger impact on interdisciplinary research at the nexus of chemicals, basic resources, and manufacturing in the coming years. We have a number of new projects developing in the wings and I am very excited to watch how they take shape under the capable leadership of Tom McKeag and the Center staff and faculty. I am also looking forward to continuing my work with students pursuing projects with the potential to improve the safety and sustainability of chemicals and products. My interactions with students have always been the highlight of my role at the Center and I am grateful that I will continue to have the opportunity to work with passionate students and innovators in my new role as Senior Advisor.
What we have accomplished at the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the College Deans and the Vice Chancellor for Research at UC Berkeley. The early support from the College of Chemistry, School of Public Health, College of Natural Resources, and the Haas School of Business were essential for giving the faculty the time and freedom to create the Center. We at the Center are grateful to our many funders, who include state and federal agencies, a number of foundations, and our industry partners (more information about these supporters can be found on our website). The Center has also benefited greatly from the interactions we’ve had with the larger Green Chemistry community around the country. Our curriculum efforts were supported by all of the work that came before us at the University of Oregon, ACS institute for Green Chemistry, and the Beyond Benign Foundation. Finally, I am personally grateful to all of the faculty, students, and collaborators that I have worked with during my tenure as Executive Director. I have learned something new every day and I could not have done it without all of you. Thank you!
Last year, PubChem introduced a new feature called Laboratory Chemical Safety Summary (LCSS). This is a new way to get the type of health & safety information normally found in material safety data sheets (MSDS)—except that you may find even more information, more easily. As of today, 3,290 compounds have LCSS information available in the database, and you can find all of them here.
LCSS is a commendable example of information about health and environmental hazards being neatly integrated, organized, and presented alongside other valuable types of information—in this case within the huge data infrastructure of PubChem.
The problem of toxic substances has roots that can be traced back through the organizational levels of industrial systems: from the design and manufacture of products to the design and manufacture of the materials from which products are fashioned, and ultimately to the level of chemical production and molecular design. The results of design and engineering decisions at each level are taken up as finished products for use in ‘higher’ levels of design and engineering. Product design rarely involves creating new materials or synthesizing new chemicals; rather, it most commonly involves selecting among available existing materials. Those materials, in turn, are made of chemical ingredients selected from already-available options. To a large extent, the entire chemistry-based system of production is shaped by the available transformations of mineral and petrochemical resources.
This view highlights a multi-level hierarchy in the way things are made—we might call it a design hierarchy, illustrated here with the example of a hypothetical PVC-containing building product.
We can use the design hierarchy to trace the decisions that have led to the presence of toxic chemicals in products, and to identify opportunities for substitution. This concept is adapted from the ‘nested relationship’ of chemicals, materials, and products that the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production articulated in their Alternatives Assessment Framework. That relationship expressed a hierarchy of inclusion: “products consist of materials and/or chemicals, materials consist of chemicals, and chemicals are constituents of materials or products.” The design hierarchy also expresses the relationships of different actors involved in designing technological artifacts and systems—and these relationships are interesting from the perspective of systems change.
As we follow toxic problems deeper into the design hierarchy, the main actors at each level—the designers, engineers, and manufacturers who make each discrete item what it is—become further and further removed from each other and their respective design goals and knowledge networks. For example, it’s difficult for architects who want to design ‘green’ buildings to influence what goes on in the domains of materials science and chemistry. They lack the resources and technical expertise necessary to delve into issues of the molecular composition of products, and they can’t easily modify products to make them less toxic.
Designers could try to select safer products, by asking what alternatives are available and how these compare in terms of environmental health impacts. But answering such questions is a challenge in itself. There are structural and organizational barriers to information flow in supply chains, especially across different levels of this hierarchy. For any given item, there may be a complex, globally-distributed network of suppliers; who is responsible for its chemical makeup? For that matter, what is its chemical makeup? Product makers don’t necessarily even know. Concerns about chemical risks upstream in the supply chain are simply not negotiable in markets where detailed knowledge of product chemistry is lacking.
One way to advance a safer material economy is to bring more technical resources to bear on the problem at deeper levels of design. This could be approached in a number of ways:
- Specialized groups of design professionals could take on the challenge of developing innovative technologies that are inherently benign. At the chemical and material design levels, this corresponds to green chemistry and green engineering. Green product design is even more complex and nebulous.
- Proponents of clean production can develop green design tools—decision support tools intended to inform and guide users in the technical aspects of eliminating toxic substances. Green design tools have been developed and used at all levels of the design hierarchy: to reduce the environmental health impacts of the synthesis and properties of molecules (e.g., the GreenScreen), to optimize the chemical composition of materials and the manufacture of parts and components (e.g. the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index), and to select safer and less environmentally costly products (e.g. Healthy Building Network’s Pharos Project). Different kinds of expertise, and different design tools, are brought to bear at each level. The idea is that well-informed decisions may, in aggregate, help shift production systems to more sustainable trajectories.
- Stakeholders can advocate for greater access to knowledge of the chemical constituents of products and materials—in other words, transparency of chemical information—to support informed design choices. This idea has gained considerable traction in the green building space, through projects like the Health Product Declaration open standard. Meanwhile, broader initiatives like the BizNGO Guide to Safer Chemicals and the Chemical Footprint Project aim to help companies address systemic problems of supply-chain chemical management.
These are all valid approaches to the challenge of getting toxic substances out of products and production systems. But they all share some common assumptions: that the key problem to solve is a deficit in the technical abilities or knowledge resources of various kinds of design specialists (chemists, architects, etc.); and that these specialists, if well-equipped, could take on all the responsibility for fixing unsustainable technical systems. Taking a different view, we might see the causes and potential solutions to this ‘wicked’ problem as distributed throughout society, in addition to being submerged in technicalities. That will be the subject of another post…
BCGC students and their work have been making big waves in national media. Check out these great articles and get caught up on what everyone at BCGC is up to these days:
- Noah Kittner, a SAGE fellow, co-wrote a letter to the editor with his adviser Dan Kammen advising sustainable energy development for economic growth in the Balkan region. The letter was published in The Economist.
- Post-doc Heather Buckley is both in the news and writing it herself! The Indian start-up she works with to develop cheap and sustainable roofing materials was profiled in Fast Company. Heather wrote about her experience working in India, and the importance of designing safe materials with the global manufacturing workforce in mind, in an essay on TheConversation.com.
Great work everyone!
Curious about what goes on in the Greener Solutions course at the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry? Learn more about it by watching this short video!