Green Chemistry Principle #11: Real-Time Analysis for Pollution Prevention

Green Chemistry Principle #11: Real-Time Analysis for Pollution Prevention

By Alex Waked, Co-chair for the GCI

  1. Analytical methodologies need to be further developed to allow for real-time, in-process monitoring and control prior to the formation of hazardous substances.

In Video #11, Rachel and I discuss the importance of continuously monitoring chemical processes in real-time.

Most of us have driven a car before. Picture yourself driving down the highway in a car that doesn’t have any windows or rearview mirrors. I’d imagine it would be hard to not get into some sort of accident. Now add all the windows and the mirrors. It’d probably be safer to drive now, right?

So what does this have to do with chemistry, or with green chemistry principle #11 in particular? Windows and rearview mirrors provide the driver with means to monitor their surroundings in real time and allows them to react and adjust. This is exactly the idea behind principle #11 – the design of analytical methodologies to monitor chemical reactions in real time and allow for adjustments. We can think of the windows and rearview mirrors as examples of such “analytical methodologies”.


Figure 1. An NMR Spectrometer (left) and a TLC place under UV light (right) [1, 2].

As chemists, we conduct several experiments every day. Depending on the type of chemistry, the goal of these experiments can be to synthesize a novel target compound, design newer chemical processes, or simply study the properties and reactivity of a compound of interest. In a lot of these cases, it is necessary to use various analytical techniques to monitor the reaction. In the case of the simplest chemical reaction, reactants A and B react together to form a product C. How do we know when the reaction is complete? Typically, we can use techniques such as NMR or TLC (Figure 1) to see how far along the reaction has proceeded.

In many industrial settings, it’s crucial to have suitable analytical methods to monitor reactions in real-time. The scale of the reactions performed at these plants are big enough such that issues that we typically consider being only minor ones at the research lab scale can become very problematic.

An example of such a case is an exothermic reaction, in which energy is released as heat. At bench scale (grams), one can use a simple ice bath to cool down an exothermic reaction. And even if the solution’s temperature does end up rising, this usually doesn’t pose a great risk due to the small scale of the reaction.

If we now look at a similar exothermic reaction at an increased scale (kilograms), even a small increase in the solution’s temperature poses a much greater problem. The reaction rate increases at higher temperatures, further increasing the temperature as the reaction proceeds, and hence a rapid increase in the reaction rate. This is called a thermal runaway. At this point it’s nearly impossible to stop the cycle and can result in an explosion. One of the most notable examples is the Texas City disaster in 1947,3 in which a cargo ship containing more than 2000 tons of ammonium nitrate detonated, initiating a chain-reaction of additional fires and explosions in other nearby ships, killing more than 400 people (Figure 2).


Figure 2. Aerial view of the Texas City disaster [4].

Suffice to say, there is currently a huge emphasis in industrial settings to monitor and control large-scale processes in real-time.4 Changes in temperature are monitored by internal thermometers, changes in pressure can be monitored by barometers, and changes in pH can be monitored by pH meters. With the help of these analytical tools, it’s easy to verify if a reaction’s conditions exceed the safe limits, and subsequently halt the process before anything gets out of hand.





(3) “Texas City explosion of 1947”, Encyclopædia Britannica. April 9, 2018. Accessed May 2, 2018. <;


(5) “Green Chemistry Principle #11: Real-time analysis for Pollution Prevention”, American Chemical Society. Accessed May 2, 2018. <–11.html&gt;


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!

Green Chemistry Principle #9: Catalysis

By Alex Waked, Member-At-Large for the GCI

9. Catalytic reagents (as selective as possible) are superior to stoichiometric reagents.

In Video #9, Lilin and Jamy discuss the advantages of catalytic reagents over stoichiometric reagents.

In stoichiometric reactions, the reaction can often be very slow, may require significant energy input in the form of heat, or may produce unwanted byproducts that could be harmful to the environment or cost lots of money to dispose of. Most chemical processes employing catalysts are able to bypass these drawbacks.

A catalyst is a reagent that participates in a chemical reaction, yet remains unchanged after the reaction is complete. The way they typically work is by lowering the energy barrier of a given reaction by interacting with specific locations on the reactants, as demonstrated in Figure 1 below. The reactants are represented by the red and blue objects, and the catalyst by the green one. Without catalyst, the reactants cannot react with each another to form the desired product. However, once the catalyst interacts with them, the reactants become compatible and can subsequently react together. The desired product is released and the catalyst is regenerated to continue interacting with the remaining reactants to produce more product.

Principle 9 Figure 1 - catalysis

Figure 1. Graphic of a catalyst’s function in a catalytic reaction. The catalyst is green, and the reactants are red and blue.

In other words, a catalyst can be thought of as a key that can unlock specific keyholes, where a keyhole represents a particular chemical reaction. One common example of a catalytic reaction that is taught in introductory organic chemistry is the hydrogenation of ketones (Scheme 1, also discussed in the video). The stoichiometric reaction involves the addition of sodium borohydride, followed by addition of water. In this reaction, borane (BH3) and sodium hydroxide are (formally) generated as waste. By simply employing palladium on carbon as catalyst, the ketone can react directly with H2 to generate the same desired product without producing any waste.

Principle 9 Scheme 1 - catalysis example

Scheme 1. Stoichiometric vs. catalytic reduction of a ketone.

While catalytic reagents appear to play an impactful role in the development of greener processes, there are always a couple points on the flip side of the coin to consider. For instance, a reaction employing a catalyst may not necessarily be “green”, since the “greenness” of the catalyst itself should be considered as well (ie. Is the catalyst itself toxic? Is it environmentally benign?). In addition, the lifetime of a catalyst matters; a catalyst can in theory perform a reaction an infinite number of times, but in practice it loses its effectiveness after a certain period of time.

Nevertheless, when these points are considered and addressed, the impact of catalytic reagents on green processes cannot be ignored. The production of fine chemicals and the pharmaceutical industries are just a couple areas where this impact is seen.[1] By focusing innovative research around the principle of catalysis, together with the other principles of Green Chemistry, we are moving in the right direction by paving the way to new sustainable processes.

[1] Delidovich, I.; Palkovits, R. Green Chem. 2016, 18, 590-593.

Green Chemistry Principle #8: Reduce Derivatives

By Trevor Janes, Member-at-Large for the GCI

8. Unnecessary derivatization (e.g. installation/removal of use protecting groups) should be minimized or avoided if possible, because such steps require additional reagents and can generate waste.

In Video #8, Cynthia and Devon look at one common example of derivatization, which is the use of protecting groups in chemical reactions. To help illustrate the concept of a protecting group, they use toy building blocks.

In this blog post, I will use cartoons such as the one shown below (a specific example of the use of protecting groups will be shown at the end of this post).

Principle 8 - unselective reaction

Figure 1 An unselective reaction.

In Figure 1, the starting material contains two reactive sites, represented by U-shaped slots. We only want the slot on the right to react with the reagent, shown as red circles. The starting material is reacted with the reagent in order to make the desired product, but an undesired product also forms, because both U-shaped slots react with the red circle. In other words, Figure 1 shows an unselective reaction because a mixture of products is made.

Formation of the undesired product can be avoided by carrying out a protection reaction before using the red reagent, and then carrying out a final deprotection reaction. This sequence of reactions is shown in Figure 2.

Principle 8 - selectivity through protecting groups

Figure 2 A selective reaction through the use of a protecting group, which temporarily blocks the reactive site on the left side. 


Figure 2 shows how a selective reaction is traditionally done – through the use of a temporary block, known as a protecting group. The starting material can be protected by blocking one of the reactive sites, represented by the blue rectangle covering the U-shaped slot on the left. This intermediate only has one reactive site left, so the second reaction with the red reagent can only happen at the empty U-shaped slot on the right. To get the same desired product as in Figure 1, the third and final deprotection step is carried out, which removes the protecting group.

Principle 8 - waste from protecting groups

Figure 3 The waste created by all three reactions in Figure 2.

Even though the product from Figure 2 is the desired product, we had to do three reactions to only make one change, which is inefficient. Also, each step generates waste products (shown underneath each reaction arrow in the above cartoon) , which are depicted in Figure 3.

Protecting groups are a useful tool that chemists use to make the molecules, because we often need to carry out selective reactions on a molecule that has multiple of the same reactive sites. However, as we have talked about here, they are also inefficient and wasteful.

An active area of research is the development of more selective reactions, which eliminate the need to use protecting groups altogether.[1] Selective reactions use slight differences in a molecule’s chemistry to make a reaction happen at only the desired reactive site. This is very similar to the installation of the protecting group in Figure 2.

As more and more highly selective reactions are discovered, our syntheses can be made more efficient by reducing the number of steps required and the amount of waste produced. Looking ahead, protecting groups will be less and less necessary – and that’s a good thing!


Appendix – Example from Real Chemistry

A simple, specific example of the use of protecting groups[2] is shown below. Both oxygen-containing sites are reactive, but we only want the one on the left side to react in this case. The first reaction is the installation of the protecting group, (CH3)3SiCl, on the OH oxygen only, protecting the right side. The second reaction shows the reagent, CH3CH2CH2MgBr (for those curious, this is called a Grignard Reagent), which now reacts with just the ketone C=O site on the left, adding the desired new CH3CH2CH2 segment. The last step shows a combination of removing the protecting group to return the OH group, and also removing the [MgBr] segment of the reagent with the help of acid (shown as H3O+), which leaves the desired product with a CH3CH2CH2 chain added only on one side of the molecule.

Principle 8 - real protecting group use in chemistry

This example of a selective reaction uses a protecting group, but this requires 3 steps to only make 1 change. Instead, we can eliminate the need for protecting groups by designing new and more selective reactions that are much more efficient.


[1] I. S. Young and P. S. Baran, Nature Chem. 2009, 1, 193

[2] R. J. Ouellette and J. D. Rawn, in Organic Chemistry, 2014, Elsevier, Boston pp 491-534.

Green Chemistry Principle #7: Use of Renewable Feedstocks

By Trevor Janes, Member-at-Large for the GCI

7. A raw material or feedstock should be renewable rather than depleting whenever technically and economically practicable.

In Video #7, Yuchan and Ian help us understand what a raw material or feedstock is, and why we need to choose feedstocks which are renewable.

They use CO2 as an example of a feedstock which plants convert into sugar via photosynthesis. We humans use this sugar as our own feedstock for many different delicious things, including cookies! Yuchan and Ian explain that for a feedstock to be renewable, it must be able to be replenished on a human timescale, whereas depleting feedstocks take much longer to be replenished, and are being used up at a faster rate by human activity.

Many common feedstocks are depleting, such as petroleum and natural gas. The petrochemical industry uses petroleum and natural gas as feedstocks to make intermediates, which are later converted to final products that people use, such as plastics, paints, pharmaceuticals, and many others.

An example of a renewable feedstock is biomass, which refers to any material derived from living organisms, usually plants. In contrast to depleting feedstocks like petroleum, we can much more easily grow new plants once we use them up, and maintain a continuous supply. If we can use bio-based chemicals to do the same tasks that we currently accomplish using petrochemicals, we move closer to the goal of having a steady, reliable supply of resources for the future.

Existing chemical technology has developed based on using readily available petroleum as feedstock to make a majority of chemicals and end products. However, the chemical technology that enables conversion from biomass into bio-based chemicals into final products people use is not yet as well developed.1 Chemical scientists with various specializations are currently involved in improving our ability to use biomass.2, 3

So, how can we implement the principle of renewable feedstocks on a day-to-day basis? Yuchan and Ian illustrate principle 7 through their choice of solvent. As we explore in the video for principle #5, we choose a solvent for a particular purpose based on properties such as boiling point, polarity, and overall impact on health and the environment. One more aspect to consider is that we can choose to use a solvent based on is its renewability. Tetrahydrofuran (THF) is a useful ether solvent, but it is synthesized industrially from petrochemicals (see below for synthesis), so it isn’t renewable. A close relative of THF is 2-methyl THF. Its structure and properties are very similar to those of THF, but the difference is that 2-methyl THF can be synthesized from bio-based chemicals which are made from renewable feedstocks. So when we substitute 2-methyl THF in for THF, we are putting principle 7 into action.

Synthesis of THF4 vs. synthesis of 2-methyl THF5


The synthesis of THF.

An early step in the industrial production of THF involves reaction of formaldehyde with acetylene to make 2-butyne-1,4-diol. This intermediate is hydrogenated and cyclised in two more steps to yield THF. The acetylene input is derived from fossil fuels, which again are non-renewable.


The synthesis of 2-methyl THF.

An alternative to THF is 2-methyltetrahydrofuran, which has a very similar structure to THF.  It can be synthesized starting from biomass; after conversion to C5 and C6 sugars and subsequent acid-catalyzed steps, the intermediate levulinic acid can be hydrogenated to yield 2-methyl THF.


  1. “Renewable Feedstocks for the Production of Chemicals” Bozell, J. J. ACS Fuels Preprints 1999, 44 (2), 204-209.
  2. “Conversion of Biomass into Chemicals over Metal Catalysts” Besson, M.; Gallezot, P.; Pinel, C. Chem. Rev. 2014, 114 (3), 1827-1870.
  3. “Transformation of Biomass into Commodity Chemicals Using Enzymes or Cells” Straathof, A. J. J. Chem. Rev., 2014, 114 (3), 1871-1908.
  4. “Tetrahydrofuran” Müller, H. in Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry 2002, 36, 47-54.Wiley-VCH, Weinheim. doi:10.1002/14356007.a26_221
  5. “Synthesis of 2-Methyl Tetrahydrofuran from Various Lignocellulosic Feedstocks: Sustainability Assessment via LCA” Khoo, H. H.; Wong, L. L.; Tan, J.; Isoni, V.; Sharratt, P. Resour. Conserv. Recy. 2015, 95, 174.

Just Shut It!

By James LaFortune and Shawn Postle, Members-at-large for the GCI

The Green Chemistry Initiative (GCI) and the University of Toronto constantly strive to reduce the environmental impact inherent to research in the Chemistry Department.  A major contributor to the department’s carbon footprint is its fume hoods, which are required to safely carry out experimentation with volatile solvents or reagents.  They provide a partially enclosed working space that draws air from the laboratory into the hood, thereby reducing the researcher’s exposure to chemicals. However, this requires replacing the removed air with acclimatized outside air, a process which consumes large amounts of energy in heating or cooling the air.

Fume hoods are designed with a height-adjustable glass pane (sash) that allows the researcher to work while keeping the space as enclosed as possible. There are two main types of fume hoods used in chemistry labs: constant air volume (CAV) and variable air volume (VAV).  With CAV, the air flow remains constant regardless of sash height, while VAV systems are designed to moderate air flow based on the sash height.  Each fume hood requires roughly as much energy as three American households when in use.  However, roughly 50% of this energy can be conserved in VAV systems if the sash is kept shut.  Given that the Chemistry Department has 123 VAV fume hoods, ensuring that VAV sash heights are minimized during idle periods is an effective strategy to reduce unnecessary energy consumption.1


The GCI’s Just Shut It! Campaign, renewed this past summer for its third season since 2008, encourages graduate students to close VAV fume hood sashes during idle times and to minimize sash height when working in the hood.  Fume hoods are checked weekly by GCI volunteers to ensure compliance and users of fume hoods found to be in compliance are entered into monthly prize draws.  The past two Just Shut It! Campaigns (read more about the original campaign) were very successful, where compliance rates increased from 3% to 61% during the campaign. Since its reinvigoration over the summer, we have recorded similar compliance levels as previous campaigns.

What’s more, the Chemistry Department currently only uses VAV fume hoods in its Davenport wing.  However, it is exploring air systems renovations, including replacing CAV with VAV fume hoods in much of the Lash Miller wing.  These additional VAV fume hoods will further decrease our environmental impact.

This time around, we are looking to keep the Just Shut It! Campaign going permanently.  Gracious thanks to the Department of Chemistry for funding this campaign, especially Chief Administrative Officer Mike Dymarski.

  1. E. Feder, J. Robinson and S. Wakefield, International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 2012, 13, 338-353.
Leading by Example in the Lab

Leading by Example in the Lab

By Ian Mallov, Co-Chair for the GCI

Ask a scientist what their greatest satisfaction is from research.  Most will probably tell you something along the lines of “the pursuit and discovery of new knowledge.”

Some will mention the parallel satisfaction of originating inventions or techniques that are broadly applicable, and seeing that work applied for the benefit of society.

Much of the challenge of moving towards a truly sustainable culture is in applying what we’ve already shown to be effective on small scales.

Two years ago, the Green Chemistry Initiative’s 2014 Workshop team developed ten recommendations entitled “Simple Techniques to Make Everyday Lab Work Greener.”  Led by co-founder Laura Hoch, with important contributions from Cookie Cho and Dr. Andy Dicks, we publicized these during the workshop.  So what has happened to these recommendations since?  They’ve been developed – are researchers in our department incorporating them into their work habits?  Are we ourselves applying what we already know to be effective?

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that a number of our researchers were in fact using these greener lab techniques.  In an effort to make their use even more widespread, I’d like to highlight some examples of researchers in our department who are leading by example.

Further, next week our “Simple Techniques to Make Everyday Lab Work Greener” poster will be posted around the department!

Ian_July blog 1


Scientist: Karlee Bamford, Stephan lab

Technique: Recycling solvents from rotovap to use for cleaning vials and glassware

Why it’s greener: Saves solvent, reduces waste generated, and reduces energy used in production and disposal of additional solvent

Issues to Consider: Use in synthesis and purification often requires solvents to be more pure than those collected from rotovap

Ian_July blog 2Scientist: Aleksandra Holownia, Yudin lab

Technique: Setting GC to stand-by mode when not in use

Why it’s greener: The GC uses much less helium gas (a rapidly diminishing resource) and reduces the temperature of the oven, saving energy

Issues to Consider: Does take a few minutes to start up again

Ian_July blog 3Scientist: Karl Demmans, Morris lab

Technique: Using 2-methyl THF as a reaction solvent instead of THF

Why it’s greener: 2-methyl THF is derived from the aldehyde furfural, sourced from renewable crops.  THF, on the other hand, is derived from fossil fuels.  While crop-sourcing does not automatically make it “greener,” consensus in the case 2-methyl THF is that it is indeed less energy- and resource-intensive to produce than THF.

Issues to Consider: Unlike THF, it is immiscible with water.  Slightly less polar than THF

Ian_July blog 4Scientist: James LaFortune, Stephan lab

Technique: Isopropanol/dry ice instead of acetone/dry ice for cold baths

Why it’s greener: An Isopropanol/dry ice bath maintains a temperature of -77 oC, almost exactly the same as acetone/dry ice’s -78 oC.   However, isopropanol is much less volatile (bp: 83 oC) than acetone (bp: 56 oC); practically, this allows for the recovery and reuse of the isopropanol after several hours or overnight, while acetone evaporates.

                                                                          Issues to Consider: Must actually recover and reuse the isopropanol!

Ian_July blog 5

Scientist: Samantha Smith, Morris lab

Technique: Closing the fume hood sash when not in use.

Why it’s greener: Modern, variable-flow fume hoods – used in the Davenport wing of our building – regulate the strength of their vacuum for safety based on how far open the fume hood is.  When wide open, the fume hood uses much more energy than when closed (see Just Shut It campaign!)

Issues to Consider: Is your fume hood variable-flow?


Ian_July blog 6Scientist: Brian de la Franier, Thompson lab

Technique: Using a closed-loop cooling system for refluxes and distillations.

Why it’s greener: Uses much less water.  While some of our undergraduate labs have built-in closed-loop cooling systems, Brian simply got a small fish tank pump from a pet store and uses a Styrofoam box with ice to keep his water cold – a very easy DIY solution!

Issues to Consider: Does water saved compensate for the extra energy for the ice/pump?  Consider the energy used to purify and deliver the extra water and we can safely say yes.

Ian_July blog 7

Scientist: Alex Waked, Stephan lab

Technique: Reusing rubber septa used to seal Schlenk flasks

Why it’s greener: Saves materials and money

Issues to Consider: There is a limit to their reusability.  At some point, if a septum has been perforated by too many needle holes it is no longer an effective seal.  Must also ensure septa are kept clean.

Ian_July blog 8

Scientist: Molly Sung, Morris lab

Technique: Reusing gas chromatography vial caps by replacing their septa

Why it’s greener: Saves materials and money

Issues to Consider: Somewhat time-consuming to remove and replace rubber septa for each cap


Ian_July blog last