October 21, 2009 Volume 2 Issue 16
. . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .
By Irv Levy and Dwight Tshudy
This week (October 19–23), chemists around the nation are in merriment mode, marking October as arguably the most chemical time of the year. It is, after all, the month during which National Chemistry Week is celebrated.
Celebrate chemistry? Don’t chemicals cause problems? Isn’t chemistry only mentioned in the media when it’s linked to derailed trains, flaming warehouses, or protests on Capitol Hill? Hardly the stuff of celebration.
But increasing numbers of chemists are working to change that image for the future. In fact, green chemistry—the practice of chemistry designed to be inherently safer for human health and the environment—has been a serious research field since the 1990s. Spearheaded by the EPA and programs such as the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards presented annually in Washington, D.C., a Nobel Prize was even awarded for a green chemistry project a few years ago. So what does it mean to be green in chemistry? And why does it matter?
Many claim the adjective "green" these days, from pizza parlors to local grocery stores. But green chemists are guided by a specific set of principles—twelve to be exact—that direct our work in the laboratories and consequently, affect our lives every day. One of the key elements of greening the chemical enterprise is the recognition that green is not a destination for our science; instead, it is a path. The 12 Principles of Green Chemistry, then, constantly provoke us to review the methods and materials we use, looking for ways to glean the benefits of modern chemistry without the accidents and unintended consequences that have occurred in the past. It’s a path from one shade of green to the next.
Some of us in the green chemistry movement believe there is also a biblical mandate to practice wise stewardship of the physical world, to promote chemistry that is by design environmentally benign. We see this green chemistry imperative as completely concordant with our Christian calling to care for the environment as God's good stewards. For us that means that many shades of green permeate our particular college department—from our classrooms and our labs to our student research projects and lectures we host or present, we’re always thinking green.
We have to be honest though: green chemistry at Gordon College wasn’t the bright idea of a couple of professors. College students—who are often the catalytic force for world-changing movements—are largely behind the green chemistry movement. Many of today’s students not only want to learn about green chemistry, they want to teach others. In our particular program, it was the persistence of a young biology student named Laura (Hamel) Ouillette who taught us and challenged us to take our work further, to become strong proponents and founding leaders in the national Green Chemistry Education Network.
But back to celebrating chemistry. Regardless of who we are—whether students, professors, or any type of citizen—we can inspire others beyond our campuses or communities to look for a greener way to live. Whether traveling to national conferences to challenge others, returning to former high schools, or partnering with organizations like the Beyond Benign Foundation to work around our region, there are hundreds of combinations that can remind Earth dwellers to renew rather than deplete. It’s easier than some might think to find new ways to prevent waste, for instance, rather than treat or clean up waste. We could design less hazardous chemical synthetics with little or no toxicity. And we can all support practical ways to conserve energy, use renewable materials, and encourage innovative chemical technologies.
We want to take the celebration to the streets, to the museums, to after-school fun science programs or community groups, and introduce thousands of folks to the reality that science does in fact have the potential to solve a lot of the world’s serious problems. But it is the one simple moment, that light bulb if you will, when someone gets a glimpse of the transforming power of green chemistry that can inspire all of us—young and old alike—to make a significant contribution to a greener world, regardless of the shade. That’s when the path gets greener still.
So in an era where science news mostly deals with projects that are too costly, accidents that have caused harm, or global concerns that are so large they become political hot potatoes, green chemistry is a breath of fresh air. Literally. And that’s as good a reason as any to celebrate. Happy National Chemistry Week!
Irv Levy is professor of chemistry and chair of the department. He and his wife and their children live in Hamilton, MA. Dwight Tshudy is associate professor of chemistry. He and his wife live in Salem, MA.