The Indian Vulture Crisis and its Relationship to Sustainable Chemistry

The Indian Vulture Crisis and its Relationship to Sustainable Chemistry

This month, the University of Toronto’s Green Chemistry Initiative and the Gainesville ToxSquad teamed up to co-author a post about the Indian Vulture Crisis…

By Shira Joudan (GCI) and Alexis Wormington (ToxSquad)

Pharmaceuticals have drastically changed our society, quality of life, and life expectancy. Advances in chemistry are the driving forces behind the optimization of pharmaceuticals and other synthetic chemicals which have shaped the way we live our lives.  Sometimes, a chemical used has undesired side effects, such as non-target toxicity to animals in the environment. A historic example of the consequences of chemical use is the toxicity of the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) to eagles, which was profiled in Rachel Carson’s famous book Silent Spring. Although current regulations require extensive toxicity testing for new chemicals, those with a high production volume can still elicit unforeseen environmental effects on the environment.

More recently, there have been unforeseen environmental implications of chemical use in another essential bird population in India, a phenomenon now known as the Indian Vulture Crisis. Between 1993 and 2000, Indian vultures (Gyps bengalensis, Figure 1) began to mysteriously disappear, with the population declining by over 97% in less than 10 years (Figure 2).1 Researchers worked frantically to identify the cause, and came up with several theories ranging from infectious disease to food shortage to chemical exposure. Scientists began noticing visceral gout on a majority of the dead vultures,2 which is a sign of kidney failure in birds, and from there it didn’t take long to determine the culprit was a chemical contaminant. In 2004, a paper reported startling amounts of diclofenac (Figure 3) in the tissues of the dead vultures, providing compelling evidence that the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) was the cause of the population collapse.3 To figure out how to restore the vulture population, or at least slow down its decline, researchers needed to figure out how the vultures were being exposed to diclofenac, why it was killing them, and if there was a chemical alternative to the deadly pharmaceutical.

Shira_Alexis_blog1

Figure 1. Two G. bengalensis adults with a dead chick.

Shira_Alexis_blog2

Figure 2. Catastrophic decline in Gyps vultures in India over a 10-year period. Results from vulture nest monitoring in Koeladeo National Park from 1985 through 2001. [4]

So, what happened?

Shira_Alexis_blog3

Figure 3. Chemical structure of diclofenac, the pharmaceutical implicated as the cause of the Indian Vulture Crisis.

The problem began when diclofenac was approved for veterinary use in India in the early 1990s, where it was widely utilized to treat inflammation in cattle due to its efficacy and affordable cost. As a result, many livestock carcasses in India were contaminated with diclofenac, which brought catastrophic consequences to any vulture that consumed the carcasses. Vultures within the Gyps genus cannot metabolize diclofenac, and are extremely sensitive to the drug, with toxic doses ranging from just 0.1-0.8 mg/kg depending on the species.1 A vulture would receive a lethal dose of diclofenac after consuming a small amount of contaminated tissue, and die of renal failure within 48 hours. Just one contaminated carcass affected several vultures at once due to their group feeding behaviour, and because of this, diclofenac contamination in as little as 1 of every 200 carcasses would have been enough to cause the decline in the vulture population.5

Although diclofenac is either banned or not used for veterinary purposes in most countries, it is still legally utilized throughout Europe, which has drawn controversy in those countries where it is approved for use in food animals.6

Human-Health Impact of the Vulture Crisis

India is a developing country and relies more on natural processes for the removal of dead animals, where scavengers like vultures play a huge role. With the loss of the vultures, less efficient scavengers such as rats and dogs have moved in to replace them, leading to major problems with disease in the affected areas. Unlike vultures, which are terminal hosts for pathogens due to their strong stomach acid, dogs and rats are reservoirs for diseases – and now these animals are the primary scavengers in India. A rise in feral dogs has caused an increase in the number of rabies cases in humans, which has cost India approximately 998-1095 billion Rupees in healthcare costs between 1992 and 2006 (15-16.5 billion USD).7

In addition to the economic and health costs associated with a rise in infectious diseases, the disappearance of the vultures has also lead to issues with the prolonged decomposition of carcasses. Vultures play a major role in the decomposition process – a group of them can skeletonize a body within a few hours.8 But in their absence, bodies take days or months to decompose, which can lead to issues with water or food contamination. This ‘carcass crisis’ has had cultural implications as well, threatening the ancient Parsi burial tradition where bodies are not buried, but disposed of through natural means (i.e. vultures). Without the vultures, the Parsis struggle to continue the two-thousand-year-long practice9 and are forced to seek alternative methods of body disposal, causing a deep divide within the community.

Diclofenac and Green Chemistry – Could this have been prevented?

The short answer: probably not. For a drug to be approved for human or animal use, toxicity research must be conducted (although these requirements vary by country, read more about how drugs are approved in Canada10 and how drugs are approved in the USA11). Unfortunately, potential ecosystem toxicity (ecotoxicity) is not often at the forefront of the drug-approval process. Even if ecotoxicity studies were performed with diclofenac, it is unlikely that the toxicity to vultures would have been discovered before drug approval, as vultures are not a common test animal used in these types of studies. Only a full chemical assessment with ecosystem modelling and subsequent toxicity tests could have predicted the toxicity to the vultures; but these tests are expensive, time consuming, and not the norm during the current drug-approval process.

In India, farmers cannot afford to lose animals, and rely on affordable NSAIDs such as diclofenac to improve the health and quality of life of their livestock. Since NSAID use cannot be prevented, it is up to green chemists to find a suitable replacement for diclofenac that is efficient, affordable, and less toxic to vultures.

To predict the potential toxicity of a pharmaceutical or chemical to humans and the environment, it is important to consider all interactions that occur once the compound enters the body. Every pharmaceutical has a “therapeutic index” (the difference between an effective and toxic dose),  which can vary between different species or susceptible populations (e.g. infants, elderly). If the concentration of a drug exceeds the toxic level, toxic endpoints such as renal failure or death could be observed. The toxic level of a drug depends on two major processes: drug excretion and metabolism. The sum of these two processes determines how quickly a pharmaceutical is broken down and eliminated from the body. In the case of diclofenac, vultures could not metabolize or eliminate the drug, so it was free to wreak havoc on susceptible organ systems. For an NSAID to be a suitable replacement for diclofenac, vultures should be able to break it down and excrete it safely.

Shira_Alexis_blog4

Figure 4. Meloxicam, an NSAID alternative to diclofenac.

Currently, meloxicam has replaced diclofenac as an NSAID for livestock in India. Both drugs have a similar mechanism of action in the treatment of inflammation; however, unlike diclofenac, meloxicam is rapidly metabolized and excreted by vultures. In a study where different vulture species were administered meloxicam, researchers observed the production of three metabolites identical to those observed in humans during clinical trials.12 Vultures have the enzymes required for the metabolism of meloxicam (specifically cytochrome P450s and glucuronide transferase). The formation of metabolites alters the biological activity of meloxicam, increasing its water solubility and allowing for faster renal excretion.

Shira_Alexis_blog5

Figure 5. Aceclofenac, an NSAID that would not be suitable as a replacement for diclofenac.

Understanding the biological interactions of a drug can also help us eliminate potential replacements for diclofenac. An example of a poor replacement for diclofenac in cattle would be aceclofenac, because it is metabolized to form diclofenac via hydrolysis.13 This particular pharmaceutical would not do anything to improve the vulture population, and should not be selected as a replacement for diclofenac.

Current status and remaining challenges

In 2016, the Indian minister of the environment launched the Gyps Vulture Reintroduction Programme with the hope of restoring the vulture population to 40 million individuals within the next decade through breeding programs.14 Although this effort to restore the Indian vultures is a step in the right direction, there are still many challenges in way of their recovery. Despite the fact that meloxicam is a safer NSAID for use in livestock, diclofenac is still obtained and used illegally among farmers in India due to its affordability. Since the ban of diclofenac for veterinary use in 2006, the decline rate of Gyps has decreased, but vultures are still likely to decline by 18% per year despite the ban.15 Until the drug is completely removed from the equation, the reintroduction and recovery of the vultures remains a challenge.

 

 

References

  1. Swan et al. Biology Letters 2006, 2, 279-282. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2005.0425
  2. Pain et al. Conservation Biology 2003, 17, 661-671. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1523-1739.2003.01740.x
  3. Shultz et al. R. Soc. Lond. B 2004, 271, S458-460. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2004.0223
  4. Prakash et al. Biological Conservation 2003, 109, 381-390. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0006-3207(02)00164-7
  5. Green et al. Journal of Applied Ecology 2004, 41, 793-800. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0021-8901.2004.00954.x
  6. Becker, R. Nature News 2016 https://www.nature.com/news/cattle-drug-threatens-thousands-of-vultures-1.19839
  7. Markandya et al. Ecological Economics 2008, 67, 194-204. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2008.04.020
  8. Reeves, N. Journal of forensic sciences2009, 54, 523-528. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1556-4029.2009.01020.x
  9. India’s Parsis search for new funeral arrangements as there are not enough vultures to dispose of bodies. https://www.independent.co.uk/node/6669506
  10. Government of Canada https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/drugs-health-products/drug-products/fact-sheets/drugs-reviewed-canada.html
  11. S. Food & Drug Administration https://www.fda.gov/Drugs/DevelopmentApprovalProcess/default.htm
  12. Naidoo et al. Vet. Pharmacol. Therap. 2008, 31, 128-134. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2885.2007.00923.x
  13. Galligan et al. Conservation Biology 2015, 30, 1122-1127. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.12711
  14. Government of India, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=145965
  15. Cuthbert, et al. PLoS One2011, 6, e19069. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0019069

Image Credits

Feature image: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0040061

Figure 1: https://scroll.in/magazine/868116/with-indias-vulture-population-at-deaths-door-a-human-health-crisis-may-not-be-far-off

Advertisements
Water Extract of Banana: The Tasty Fruit for Efficient Green Chemistry

Water Extract of Banana: The Tasty Fruit for Efficient Green Chemistry

By Matt Gradiski, Member-at-Large for the GCI

Bananas. They’re a fantastic healthy snack, delicious to bake into bread or flavour medicine, and even the choice speak-and-spell for singer Gwen Stefani. Now, thanks to two excellent reports in 2015, an efficient medium for two sophisticated organic transformations can be added to its list of uses.

Published in Green Chemistry in January 2015, researchers were able to perform Suzuki-Miyaura (SM) cross-coupling in a neat solution of water extract of banana (WEB).1 WEB is made by simply drying the peel of a banana, burning the dried remains, and extracting the ashes with water (Figure 1). What results is a brown-orange liquid holding tremendous catalytic capability.

Matt_blog_1

Figure 1. Preparation of WEB solution [1]

 Typically, SM coupling requires the addition of external ligands, base, or other reaction promoters that can often be very expensive. The reaction is known to be able to take place in aqueous media; however, organic solvents are usually the more common choice. While the SM reaction still requires a noble-metal palladium catalyst, using a WEB medium for this reaction completely replaces the use of external additives and organic solvents (Figure 2). The only thing better than being able to do your reaction in water, is to do your reaction in water quickly! The longest reported reaction time using this system was 20 minutes, with times as a low as 5 minutes, and yields as high as 99%, all being carried out at room temperature for 12 different products.

Matt_blog2_2

Figure 2. Example of Suzuki-Miyaura coupling in WEB

Extending the scope of WEB’s usefulness, a report in July of the same year in Green Chemistry showed that the medium can also be used effectively for the catalytic Dakin reaction.2 This reaction converts an ortho- or para-hydroxy aromatic aldehyde or ketone into its corresponding benzenediol through reaction with hydrogen peroxide in base (Figure 3).

Matt_blog3

Figure 3. Proposed Dakin oxidation mechanism catalyzed by WEB [2]

Similar to SM coupling, the Dakin reaction requires addition of an external base, typically sodium or potassium hydroxide. However, it was found in the study that no external base was required when the reaction was carried out in WEB. The WEB solution was effective enough to initiate the reaction via deprotonation of hydrogen peroxide, generating the nucleophilic hydroperoxide anion that is required for the reaction to take place. All 16 reactions screened in the study were carried out at room temperature with the use of no external additives or organic solvent. Reaction times were as long as 60 minutes, and isolated yields ranged from 90-98%!

But what makes WEB such an efficient medium for green chemistry? Although the exact identity of the active species is currently unknown, the two aforementioned studies gathered valuable information about what could be promoting their reactions from a report in 2007.3 It was identified that banana peels contain a large amount of potassium and sodium carbonate as well as sodium chloride and other trace elements. It was speculated that the high concentration of alkali metal carbonates in WEB was responsible for the acceleration of these organic transformations.

So, the next time you are finished having a banana, don’t monkey around and throw it away! Give it to a chemist in need, it may help them out more than you think!

 

References

1)         P. R. Boruah, A. A. Ali, B. Saikia and D. Sarma, Green Chem., 2015, 17, 1442–1445. DOI:10.1039/C4GC02522A

2)         B. Saikia, P. Borah and N. Chandra Barua, Green Chem., 2015, 17, 4533–4536. DOI:10.1039/C5GC01404B

3)         D. C. Deka and N. N. Talukdar, IJTK, 2007, 6 (1), 72-78.

 

Figures from Boruah et al. 2015 and Saikia et al. 2015 reproduced with the permission of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Veggie (Scrap) Tales – Are plant-based polymers the answer to our plastic conundrum?

By Molly Sung, Secretary for the GCI

Plastic is one of the most ubiquitous materials on the planet. Everything from our toothbrushes, to pens, take-out containers, or parts used in the automotive or aeronautic industries are made from plastic. What started off as a convenient and cheap alternative to traditional materials has become a global reliance – and it’s taking its toll.

Traditional plastics are petroleum-based – and as we know, petroleum is a non-renewable resource and its extraction, processing, and use contributes to environmental pollution and climate change. When plastic bags were first gaining popularity in the 1950s and 60s, one of the selling points of using plastic bags was that they were more durable and long-lasting than paper,1 but that’s also exactly the problem. Plastic doesn’t degrade easily like paper does, so it starts to accumulate. This accumulation in landfills and, unfortunately, our waters has spurred research in the development of plastics that can break down over time.

An example of a biodegradable plastic is polylactic acid (PLA). The starting material, lactic acid, can be obtained through fermentation of crops such as sugarcane or corn, which can undergo condensation to form short chains (oligomers). Next, these oligomers undergo depolymerization to form lactide, a cyclic ester, which is then polymerized with the help of a catalyst to give PLA, shown in Figure 1.2

Molly_blog2

Figure 1. Synthesis of polylactic acid (PLA), a biodegradable plastic, from lactic acid.

PLA performs comparably to the popular commercial plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET, labelled with the “1” inside the recycling symbol). It is currently used in food packaging (such as disposable cups), as medical implants,2 and has also found renewed popularity as a common filament for 3D printing, but it’s not without its problems. The monomer, lactide, can have varying stereochemistry which influences the final polymer product and the mechanical properties of the plastic. Significant strides have been made in this area of research, but possibly the biggest barrier to using PLA is the competition with the food industry for the starting material. This is incidentally the same problem many first-generation biofuels ran into. But what if we could take food waste and turn it into usable plastics?

While there are some technologies being developed to use non-food materials like cellulose as a bioplastic, many of these methods require fairly harsh reactions. A gentler, water-based approach to make a cellulose-based plastic was recently reported by a research team from the Italian Institute of Technology and the University of Milano-Bicocca in the journal Green Chemistry.3

Molly_blog3

Figure 2. Image of the bioplastic films made from different vegetable powders: (A) carrot, (B) parsley, (C) radicchio, (D) cauliflower. Reproduced from Perotto et al. [3].

This new technique uses waste from the food-industry, including carrot, cauliflower, radicchio, or parsley waste. The vegetable matter must first be dried and ground into a micronized powder, but otherwise no further processing or purification is required to make the veggie waste usable in this process. To make the plastic films, the researchers simply mixed the vegetable powder with a weakly acidic solution (5 % HCl w/w) at 40 °C, then removed any residual acid through dialysis and let the suspension dry in a petri dish for 48 hours. This process has a 90 % conversion of the vegetable waste into bioplastic (by weight) and the product has very promising mechanical properties (Figure 2).

In particular, in measuring the elasticity and tensile strength of the bioplastic films, it was found that the carrot film had comparable properties to polypropylene (commonly used for rigid plastic containers – otherwise referred to as number “5” plastics).

The researchers also tested important factors for plastics being considered for food storage applications. First, they studied whether the films would interact with water. The parsley film was found to absorb water fairly readily. Conversely, the carrot filmed exhibited hydrophobic behaviour – an uncommon characteristic for vegetable-derived plastics. This hydrophobic behaviour means that the moisture from food is unlikely to soak through the plastic film or structurally damage it.

One very interesting property of the radicchio waste is that it is rich in anthocyanins. Anthocyanin is what gives radicchio, red cabbage, and beets their vibrant red colour. More importantly, anthocyanins are known anti-oxidants and materials rich in these anti-oxidants are currently being investigated as food-packaging materials that extend the shelf-life of food.4 Unfortunately, these vegetable films tested to be fairly permeable to oxygen, which would offset any benefit from the antioxidant-rich radicchio film. However, the researchers showed that if the vegetable waste was blended with polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), the oxygen permeability can be reduced significantly and was even an improvement on the pure PVA.

Lastly, and very importantly, the researchers tested for the biodegradability of the films. To test the rate of biodegradation, the researchers submerged the carrot film in seawater to measure the rate of oxygen consumption by the seawater organisms responsible for the biodegradation of the film. They found that the film decomposed fairly quickly in 15 days.

These scientists have now demonstrated a very mild process in the synthesis of bioplastics that have mechanical properties similar to one of the most common commercial plastics. They have also made a plastic that, because of the presence of anthocyanins, may have applications in food storage that can help reduce food-waste.

What is especially promising about these bioplastics is how little purification of the vegetable waste is required to make them; however, there are improvements to be made. A major obstacle these materials will face is their performance in wet or humid environments as well as scaling up to an industrial process. It is clear that we need more sustainable materials and these vegetable waste plastics present an exciting new avenue towards biodegradable bioplastics.

 

References

  1. Laskow. How the Plastic Bag Became So Popular. The Atlantic [Online] 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/10/how-the-plastic-bag-became-so-popular/381065
  2. Gupta et al., J. Prog. Polym. Sci. 2007, 32, 4, 455-482. DOI: 10.1016/j.progpolymsci.2007.01.005
  3. Perotto et al., Green Chemistry, 2018, 20, 804-902. DOI: 10.1039/C7GC03368K
  4. N. Tran, et al., Food Chemistry, 2017, 216, 324-333. DOI: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2016.08.055

 

Figure from Perotto et al. 2018 reproduced with the permission of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Glycoside Hydrolases: A Doorway to Alternative Energy

Glycoside Hydrolases: A Doorway to Alternative Energy

By Namrata Jain, GreenChem UBC (Invited post!)

Biofuels, in particular bioethanol, are widely accepted as carbon-neutral fuels1, meaning they have no net greenhouse gas emissions; the amount of carbon dioxide produced during their combustion equals the amount fixed from the atmosphere while the plants grow. These fuels provide an alternative to the current outrageous usage rate of fossil fuels. Plant biomass, a renewable and abundantly available natural resource, is used as the main source for bioethanol production.

In order to produce bioethanol, polymeric plant carbohydrates (polysaccharides) must be broken down into the corresponding monosaccharides, followed by fermentation via yeasts. Typically, starch-rich crops such as corn and sugarcane are the most heavily used as carbohydrate sources.

However, since utilization of these starchy sugars in bioethanol production competes with their use as food crops, there has been a recent shift towards utilization of lignocellulosic biomass.1 Lignocellulosic biomass includes cellulose and hemicelluloses present in non-edible parts of plants, and hence reduces dependence on edible, starch-rich crops.

Namrata_blog1

Figure 1. Structure of a plant cell wall, highlighting xyloglucan, a particular hemicellulose of interest. [2]

Lignocelluloses form an important part of the plant cell wall (Figure 1) and are composed of cellulose, hemicelluloses (such as xyloglucan), and polyaromatics called lignin. These polymers are tough and more difficult to break down to release monosaccharides, as compared to starch. Nevertheless, lignocelluloses are the most abundant biological material on earth and are an untapped resource.1

The complete utilization of this biomass, however, is hindered by the structural complexity of plant cell walls, arising from the heavy crosslinking between hemicelluloses, celluloses, and lignin within, making it difficult to access the degradable polysaccharidic components. Hemicelluloses, such as xyloglucan (Figure 2A), can make up 15-50 % of these lignocellulosic materials and have been the focus of research for optimization to use as a biofuel.

To efficiently break down the lignocelluloses, many types of enzymes are needed. Glycoside hydrolases, one such group of carbohydrate active enzymes, have proven to be very efficient in the hydrolysis of many complex polysaccharides.3 However, more details about the chemical structure of the enzymes, as well as a reliable way of comparing the kinetic activity of various enzymes has been of interest to researchers in the field.

One of the ways of quantifying the kinetic details of such enzymes is by designing chemical probes such as one shown in Figure 2B. Such probes are chemically very similar in structure to the polysaccharide of interest (eg. Figure 2A), and hence can subtly fit into the active site of the enzyme and manipulate its rate of catalysis in a controlled and quantifiable way, making comparisons between enzymes’ kinetics possible.

Namrata_blog2

Figure 2. Structures of (A) xyloglucan; and (B) xyloglucan oligosaccharide based probe.

These probes can also assist in the crystal structure formation of the enzyme providing key details about the nature of interactions between the enzyme and corresponding polysaccharide and the specific amino acids responsible for its catalytic activities (Figure 3).

The Brumer group at the University of British Columbia4 has recently designed one such probe (Figure 2B) specific for xyloglucan active enzymes (xyloglucanases) by chemically modifying a xyloglucan-derived heptasaccharide. This probe was able to provide valuable information about the kinetics, specificity, as well as structural details of a newly discovered xyloglucanase PbGH5, which is secreted by a microbe residing in the intestinal system of ruminants such as cows.

Namrata_blog3

Figure 3. Crystal structure of the characterised endoxyloglucanase in complex with the inhibitor. [4]

As more research goes into the design and improvement of such probes, we would be able to develop novel enzyme cocktails that can make bioethanol production more economically and practically viable, leading to gradual decrease in our dependence on fossil fuels for our energy needs.

 

References:

  1. Scheffran J. The Global Demand for Biofuels: Technologies, Markets and Policies. In: Biomass to Biofuels: Strategies for Global Industries. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.; 2010:27-54. doi:10.1002/9780470750025.ch2.
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cell_wall#Plant_cell_walls
  3. Henrissat B, Davies G. Structural and sequence-based classification of glycoside hydrolases. Curr Opin Struct Biol. 1997;7(5):637-644. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0959-440X(97)80072-3.
  4. McGregor N, Morar M, Fenger TH, et al. Structure-function analysis of a mixed-linkage β-glucanase/xyloglucanase from key ruminal Bacteroidetes Prevotella bryantii B14. J Biol Chem. 2015;291(3):1175-1197. doi:10.1074/jbc.M115.691659.
Embodied Energy and Solar Cells

Embodied Energy and Solar Cells

By Devon Holst, Member-at-Large for the GCI

Embodied energy is the sum of all energy consumed in the production of goods and services. Knowing the amount of energy something ‘embodies’ is useful when assessing the environmental impact of comparable goods and services as well as assessing the utility of technologies that produce or save energy. If a device intended to save energy embodies more energy than it will save over the entirety of its use, the product is considered to be unfavourable. A net energy loss would be the result of its application.

It is important to consider the embodied energy of renewable energy technologies to ensure there is a net energy gain. I am going to follow the production process of silicon solar cells as an example of how energy can be embodied into a product. To be effective, the embodied energy of a solar cell must be less than the total energy it produces. There are many processing steps needed to assemble a solar cell where the embodied energy should be kept to a minimum. Some of the largest sources of embodied energy in silicon solar cells are described below.

Devon_blog 1

Silicon Processing (Additional embodied energy: 460 kWh/kg)

Carbothermic reduction of quartz sand (silicon dioxide) is used to produce metallurgical grade silicon. This process consumes 20 kWh/kg of metallurgical grade silicon produced. Metallurgical grade silicon must then be further refined to electronic grade silicon through a reaction with hydrochloric acid at 300 oC followed by treatment with hydrogen gas at 1100 oC. This process consumes 100 kWh/kg of electronic grade silicon. This silicon is then melted at 1400 oC and crystallized, consuming 290 kWh/kg of silicon single crystal. This form of silicon is suitable for use in a solar cell. After accounting for losses of material during each step, these processes embody 460 kWh of energy into each kg of silicon single crystal.1

Solar Cell Production (Additional embodied energy: 120 kWh/m2)

The single crystal of silicon is sliced into wafers with a multiwire saw resulting in a 40% to 50% loss as dust. Following this, a sequence of high temperature diffusion, oxidation, deposition, and annealing steps are performed. This adds 120 kWh/m2 ­­­of embodied energy to the solar cell.1

Module Assembly (Additional embodied energy: 190 kWh/m2)

A module consisting of a glass front panel, an encapsulant, the solar cell, copper ribbon, a foil back cover, and an aluminum channel is then assembled. 190 kWh/m2 of embodied energy is added during assembly.1

Support Structure (Additional embodied energy: 200 – 500 kWh/m2)

The module is then typically installed in a field or on a rooftop. In a field, the module needs to be supported by concrete, cement, and steel. Construction and materials add 500 kWh/m2 of embodied energy. Rooftops have an existing support structure reducing the embodied energy of this aspect to 200 kWh/m2.1

Miscellaneous Components

Beyond the former sources of embodied energy there are many other components in an operational solar cell. An inverter, wiring, and a battery are a few examples of these components. Depending on the components needed, this will add a variable amount of embodied energy.1

Devon_blog2Emerging technologies such as perovskites and organic solar cells often have much lower embodied energies than their silicon counterparts. Material processing methods and the amount of material necessary to produce a solar cell are a couple of the major factors that account for the difference in embodied energy of these technologies.1,2 There are, however, many other factors that make a solar cell viable for large scale energy production which when considered in aggregate currently favour silicon solar cells. It is likely that multiple solar energy technologies will thrive in the future as each has unique characteristics making one more applicable to a given situation than another.1,3

The energy payback time of a given solar cell is calculated by dividing embodied energy by energy output per unit time. This is the amount of time a solar cell must operate before it generates the same amount of energy as its embodied energy. Silicon solar cells have a 1.65 to 4.12 year energy payback time, while some organic solar cells and perovskites have energy payback times of less than half a year.4,5

Embodied energy is part of an even broader picture. A picture that captures the energy used to recycle or dispose of something and the energy associated with environmental impacts incurred through goods and services in any way. The picture is complex, but a deep understanding of it is necessary in order to make decisions that are conscious of the future.

I wonder how much energy I embody…

References:

1) Nawaz, I.; Tiwari, G. N., Embodied energy analysis of photovoltaic (PV) system based on macro- and micro-level. Energy Policy 2006, 34 (17), 3144-3152.

2) Anctil, A.; Babbitt, C. W.; Raffaelle, R. P.; Landi, B. J., Cumulative energy demand for small molecule and polymer photovoltaics. Progress in Photovoltaics: Research and Applications 2013, 21 (7), 1541-1554.

3) Snaith, H. J., Perovskites: The Emergence of a New Era for Low-Cost, High-Efficiency Solar Cells. The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters 2013, 4 (21), 3623-3630.

4) Espinosa, N.; Hosel, M.; Angmo, D.; Krebs, F. C., Solar cells with one-day energy payback for the factories of the future. Energy & Environmental Science 2012, 5 (1), 5117-5132.

5) Gong, J.; Darling, S. B.; You, F., Perovskite photovoltaics: life-cycle assessment of energy and environmental impacts. Energy & Environmental Science 2015, 8 (7), 1953-1968.

Image Sources:

  1. Solar panels (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SolarparkTh%C3%BCngen-020.jpg)
  2. Embodied energy (http://www.paveshare.org/library/embodied-energy)

Green Chemistry Principle #10: Design for Degradation

By Shira Joudan, Chair of the Education Subcommittee for the GCI

10. Design for degradation: Chemical products should be designed so that at the end of their function they break down into innocuous degradation products and do not persist in the environment.

In video #10, Matt and I discuss designing chemicals that break down once their desired function is completed. Essentially, we want chemicals to degrade to molecules that are not harmful to humans, animals or the environment.

A lot of the chemicals we use in our day-to-day lives need to be stable to perform their function. For example, if your coffee mug dissolved when you poured your coffee into it, it wouldn’t be very helpful! Similarly, if lubricants degraded under high temperature and pressure, they may not work well in the engines of our cars or planes.

Once chemicals are done providing their main function, they might end up in a landfill or wastewater treatment plant where they can enter the waters, soil and air of our environment, or be taken up by animals or humans. The biggest challenge is making chemicals that are stable during usage, but don’t persist in the environment – or in other words, chemicals that can be degraded. Another important thing – we want the breakdown products to also be non-toxic and not persistent! It’s important to remember that there are different reasons a chemical can break down. It can be due to reactions with light (photodegradation), water (hydrolysis) or biological species, often with enzymes (biodegradation).

A common example that we hear about is biodegradation, especially with the well-known “biodegradable soaps.” We can use this as a good example about how we can design soaps, or detergents, to break down more easily in the environment.

Sodium dodecylbenzenesulfonate

Figure 1 Sodium dodecylbenzenesulfonate, an example of a linear alkylbenzene sulfonate (LAS) which is biodegradable.

Sodium dodecylbenzenesulfonate (Figure 1) is a common detergent, and is often referred to as LAS, for linear alkylbenzene sulfonates. Looking at its structure, you can see that it has a linear alkyl chain with a benzylsulfonate attached to it. It is useful as a detergent because it has a polar headgroup (sulfonate) and a non-polar alkyl group, making it a surfactant.

LAS is used in many things, especially laundry detergent. It degrades quickly in the environment under aerobic conditions, or when oxygen is present, because microbes are able to use to the linear alkyl chain as energy, via a process called β-oxidation, a process which breaks down the carbon chain. Once the long chain is degraded, the rest of the molecule can be degraded as well.

Branched alkylbenzene sulfonate.

Figure 2 A branched alkylbenezene sulfonate (does not biodegrade).

If you compare LAS to a branched version (Figure 2), you can immediately see that the alkyl chain looks very different. This molecule was also used as a detergent just like the linear version, but because of the location of the branches, microbes cannot perform β-oxidation since there are no good sites for that reaction to be initiated. Therefore, these branched detergents have been phased out in most developed countries because they are too persistent – they do not biodegrade.

The main way these molecules are degraded is through microbes, when oxygen is present. So if these soaps end up directly in water, like straight into a lake, they will not be broken down very quickly (even the linear version!). This is because there are fewer microbes in water as compared to in soil. Interestingly, the branched version is 4 times less toxic than the linear version, but can cause more damage because of its persistence. This is one of the reasons that it is very important to consider persistence, or a molecule’s resistance against degradation, and not only its toxicity.

You can see how designing chemicals to break down can be very challenging, but many researchers around the world are working on this right now. Some examples are biodegradable polymers that are used in plastics, like compostable cutlery.

Principle 10 is currently one of the largest challenges in green chemistry. If scientist designing new chemicals understand more about the mechanisms that can degrade them, we may be able to make chemicals that are reliable and stable during their intended use, but break down in the environment!

Celebrating the 5-Year Anniversary of the GCI

Celebrating the 5-Year Anniversary of the GCI

By Alex Waked, Co-Chair for the GCI

The Green Chemistry Initiative (GCI) at the University of Toronto was founded back in 2012 – it’s crazy to think that we’ve already reached the 5-year milestone. Before you know it, it’ll be 10 years, then perhaps even 20 years! But before we talk about the future, it’s always a good idea to take a step back and reflect on how we’ve gotten here in the first place. This organization wouldn’t even exist had it not been for the vision of co-founders Laura Hoch and Melanie Mastronardi, with help from many graduate students keen on educating themselves and their peers about sustainable practices. With the help of all the other dedicated GCI members over the years, they helped the GCI grow to the point at which we’re now standing. Being the 5-year anniversary of the GCI, I reached out to all the previous co-chairs and asked them to reflect on their time spent here.

GCI2013

GCI group photo from 2013

Laura Hoch (Co-Chair from 2012-2015):

I’m so excited to help celebrate the GCI’s 5-year anniversary by sharing some reflections and favorite memories from my time with the group. When I look at all the GCI has done over the past 5 years, I am so happy to see how much impact we’ve had. Within our own department, all the events and initiatives – trivia, seminars, workshops, the waste awareness campaign, and many more – have really raised awareness about green chemistry and made it more tangible. Through our work, we have also helped to inspire other students in Canada and around the world to get active, start their own student groups, and promote green chemistry in their own communities.

It’s really hard for me to pick a favorite event or project that I am most proud of – in my extremely biased opinion, we’ve done way too many awesome things! – but for me one of the moments when it really hit home how much of an impact we were having was at a networking session at the ACS Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference in Washington D.C. Waiting in the food line, I randomly ended up talking to a researcher at DuPont. When I mentioned that I was from U of T, he said “Oh! Are you one of those intrepid students from Toronto?!” and proceeded to describe in detail many of our activities and initiatives. It blew my mind that here was a complete stranger from Delaware, who wasn’t even an academic, who had heard of us and thought what we were doing was great.

I can honestly say that helping to start the GCI was by far the BEST thing I did in grad school. I’ve learned so much and have met so many amazing people through our work. I am so proud of what the GCI has accomplished and I really look forward to seeing what the GCI will do in the years to come!

Melanie Mastronardi (Co-Chair from 2012-2014):

It seems like just yesterday that we started the GCI, I can’t believe it’s been 5 years already! Thinking back to where we started (just a handful of grad students who wanted to learn how to conduct our research more sustainably), I’m so proud of all the GCI has been able to accomplish. From weekly trivia challenges to department seminars to hosting students and speakers from all over at our annual symposium, the GCI has created so many opportunities for students and researchers to learn about green chemistry and how to implement it. It’s also absolutely amazing to hear stories of how we inspired students at other universities to start similar organizations! One of my personal favourite projects was launching the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry video campaign. We’ve come a long way from the first one we filmed in Jes’ kitchen and last time I checked we are only 3 away from completing the full set!

Laura Reyes (Co-Chair from 2014-2016):

I am so grateful and proud to have been a founding member and co-chair for the GCI, and continue to be impressed by everything that the group does. It feels surreal to look back on everything that we have accomplished in only 5 years. The GCI started from the curiosity of a few grad students wanting to know how green chemistry could be applied to our own research, and now the group is well-known and respected throughout the green chemistry community as an example of a student-driven education effort. In that time, the GCI has managed to change the conversation around green chemistry in the UofT chemistry department. Subtle changes have compounded into a larger cultural shift, including anything from curriculum development for undergrad courses and labs (and signing Beyond Benign’s Green Chemistry Commitment!), to faculty members self-identifying as using green chemistry in their work. There is still much progress to be made, of course, but looking back on the accomplishments of the GCI and the professional experience that we all gained in being a part of this, it is hard to not feel proud of every project and event that we organized, starting with our very first seminar on the basics of green chemistry to recently teaching that seminar ourselves at the 100th CSC conference!

GCI group photo 2017

GCI group photo from 2017

Erika Daley (Co-Chair from 2015-2016):

Congratulations to all previous and current members of the Green Chemistry Initiative on its 5th anniversary! I was incredibly proud of all the accomplishments and activities that took place during my time as co-chair, and continue to be delighted by the success of the group. I think the value is especially put into perspective in my career when researchers, faculty, students, and industry employees know of or recognize the GCI and the impact it has had all over North America. While it is impossible for me to pick one particular initiative to highlight here, I think the collective outreach, education, data collection, and subsequent actions of the entire GCI team – from the departmental waste awareness campaign, to the community outreach events, to the undergraduate curriculum development – are all so important and speak volumes to what a group of dedicated student volunteers can accomplish.

Ian Mallov (Co-Chair from 2016-2017):

The 5-year anniversary of the GCI is an opportunity to reflect on our mission and goals. What did we want to accomplish, and what have we accomplished? Personally, I’m most proud of the fact that we have successfully ingrained green chemistry education into the fabric of our department through establishing regular events like symposia, seminars, and trivia, and that we helped encourage the department to sign the Green Chemistry Commitment. Green chemistry education should be fundamental to chemical education – it is our job as chemists to understand matter at the molecular and nano levels. I view the primary mission of green chemistry as a mission to impart a sense of responsibility to chemists to manage matter safely. I would hope the GCI has brought more chemists at U of T and beyond to consider this responsibility, and I’m really encouraged by the bright, dedicated people who continue to lead the GCI forward.