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.

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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


Green Chemistry Principle #6: Design for Energy Efficiency

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

6. Energy requirements of chemical processes should be recognized for their environmental and economic impacts and should be minimized. If possible, synthetic methods should be conducted at ambient temperature and pressure.

In chemistry (and in life) we need energy to do work. Every task we do in the lab requires energy: whether we’re using a Bunsen burner or weighing out a reagent or dissolving our favourite compound, in all cases we’re using energy in some form.

In the lab, we often need to change the pressure and temperature of experiments, and this uses a large amount of energy. Ideally, we would perform all reactions at ‘ambient’ conditions – room temperature and atmospheric pressure – in order to minimize energy usage.

In Video #6, Julia and David use an energy monitor to see help us see just how much energy is used by everyday lab equipment. They measure a vacuum pump, which is used to reduce pressure, and a hot plate, used to raise the temperature of a reaction.

Julia and David measure the power used by each instrument and calculate the monthly energy bill, comparing the cost and amount of energy to a regular household item like a TV.[1] By doing this they determine the financial impact of the energy requirements of lab equipment. A hot plate uses roughly as much energy as a TV, and a vacuum pump uses more energy than 3 TVs! Just like at home, minimizing the use of equipment in a lab, and turning off equipment when it’s not in use, will conserve energy and save money.

In an academic lab, the amount of energy and its associated cost is modest and may seem insignificant. But on the much larger industrial scale, energy/money savings are multiplied and energy efficiency becomes even more important.

We know that heating a reaction requires energy, but another energy-intensive aspect of lab work that occurs after completion of the reaction is the work-up. “Working up” the reaction means separating our desired product from the other components in the reaction mixture such as solvent and byproducts. We talked about this before in our post for Principle #5.

To remove solvent conveniently we use a rotary evaporator, commonly referred to as a “rotovap,” which involves the combined use of a heat source, vacuum pump, rotating motor, and chiller. The heat, vacuum, and rotation vaporize the solvent and the chiller condenses the solvent vapors into a flask for removal. If you’re curious, we also measured the energy used by the chiller component of the rotovap assembly (see calculations below). If left on all the time, the monthly energy bill for the chiller alone would be $15.60 – the same as 2 TVs – and that’s not including the other rotovap components. If we can develop chemical reactions that avoid solvent removal and/or simplify work-up, we can save energy and money.


Our “Shut It” campaign encourages fume hood sashes to stay closed.

Later in the video, we were delighted to host special guest Allison Paradise, Executive Director of My Green Lab who joined us to highlight the importance of minimizing the energy used by chemical fume hoods. As the My Green Lab website explains, there are Constant Air Volume (CAV) and Variable Air Volume (VAV) ventilation systems.[2] In VAV systems, closing the fume hood sash allows the exhaust fan to run more slowly while maintaining a safe flow rate. By closing our sashes in VAV systems we can reduce energy use by 40% or more!

Turning off your TV after you’re finished watching it illustrates the idea behind Principle #6. Just like you care for the environment and save money by being energy efficient at home, we want to minimize the environmental and economic impacts of the chemical processes we do in the lab.

Energy Calculations:

Julia and David measured the vacuum pump to draw 360 W. If we kept it on for one month, this would be 259 kWh. In Toronto, the consumption-based cost of electricity is $0.108/kWh,[1] which makes the cost for one month of vacuum pump use $28.

360 W x (1 kW/1000 W) x (720 h/1 month) = 259 kWh/month

259 kWh x $0.108/kWh = $28

The hot plate heating an oil bath to 110 °C uses 100 W, which amounts to 72 kWh in one month. Using the electricity cost of $0.108/kWh again, the monthly bill for keeping the hot plate on at all times would be $7.80.

100 W x (1 kW/1000W) x (720 h/1 month) = 72 kWh/month

72 kWh x $0.108/kWh = $7.80

Not included in the video is the measurement of a rotovap chiller. This chiller circulates coolant that it maintains at -5 °C, which requires 200 W. This is double the power drawn by the hot plate and represents a monthly energy bill of $15.60.


[1] Cost of electricity and household appliance energy usage, Toronto Hydro: http://www.torontohydro.com/sites/electricsystem/residential/yourbilloverview/Pages/ApplianceChart.aspx

[2] My Green Lab’s explanation of fume hood types and their energy consumption: http://www.mygreenlab.org/be-good-in-the-hood.html

Update on the Waste Awareness Campaign

By Karl Demmans, Seminar Series Coordinator for the GCI

Today I’m very excited to update everyone on the latest results of the Waste Awareness Campaign. We’ve been recording the types and quantities of waste accumulated in Lash Miller Chemical Laboratories since January 1st, 2014.

Posters displaying the data collected in the first 8 months were posted throughout the department, with the intention of drawing researchers’ attention to their waste habits and shedding light on alternate green methods to help reduce waste generated in our department. You may have seen this previous data set, which we published in a blog post here.

Now, almost two years later, we have gathered enough data to look at the changes in waste production from 2014 to 2015, during the period of January to August for each year. Take a look at the poster below for a summary of what we found.

GCI Waste Awareness Poster 2015

The table shows the percent contribution by discipline to each waste category, while the bar graph displays the distribution of waste within each discipline.

Beginning with the table at the top, the rows display each discipline’s percent contribution to each respective waste category, while the last column shows the contribution to total waste in 2015. The value in brackets denotes the change from the same period in 2014. Understandably and not surprisingly, the most waste is produced by organic chemistry labs, accounting for 81% of flammable waste, and 58% of the total waste in our department. This is then followed by the polymers & materials, inorganic, and biological disciplines, fairly evenly contributing 10-15% each to the total waste volume.

Subsequently, the row entitled “Percent of Total 2015” breaks down the contribution by each type of waste compared to the total waste accumulated. From this, we can see that the flammable waste was our department’s largest source of waste this year, followed by green pails for solid waste at 40%. The last row indicates the percent increase for each waste category in comparison to the same period of 2014.

Surprisingly, we observed a fairly dramatic increase in waste this year. It is important to note that the data has already been corrected for the number of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows working in the labs, since this number fluctuates constantly. However, we do not have the number of undergraduate students who work or volunteer in each lab, which could adjust the data comparisons. Nonetheless, the increase in waste production surprised us, and we will continue to compare trends as we collect more data over time.

The bar graph “Waste Distribution by Discipline” at the bottom of the poster displays a further breakdown of the types and quantities of waste produced in each discipline of chemistry. For example, in Environmental Chemistry, 51% of the total waste was green pails while only 25% of waste was flammable solvent. This graph allows each lab to identify their largest type of waste production and strategically target reduction. In general, the vast majority of the Chemistry Department’s waste was flammable and solid material. In fact, we are only producing minimal halogenated and acidic waste, which is a noteworthy accomplishment as these types of waste are more harmful to the environment and costly to neutralize.

While we have seen a percentage shift in the use of chlorinated and acidic to flammable solvents, we have still noted increases across the board in each waste category. As a research facility, we generally produce a very small fraction of the global chemical waste in comparison to industrial processes. Nonetheless, we take our waste production very seriously and are always brainstorming ways to encourage less production of chemical waste in order to reduce our footprint. Do you have any stories of how your institutions have encouraged waste reduction? Share with us in the comments!

For more information on the categories of waste and proper waste disposal please refer to our posts Proper Chemical Waste Disposal: Posters & Memes and Chemical Waste FAQs.

Green Chemistry Education through TAs at the University of Toronto

By Julia Bayne, Member-at-Large for the GCI

Green chemistry education is one of our main initiatives within our chemistry department. As part of an ongoing collaboration, we, the Green Chemistry Initiative (GCI), work with the teaching faculty to help modify and improve the undergraduate curriculum through the incorporation of green chemistry. This partnership has resulted in a substantial increase in the amount of green chemistry taught in the classroom and the modification or replacement of a number of experiments in the laboratory component of these courses. For example, the University of Toronto offers a third year undergraduate chemistry course (CHM343H: Organic Synthesis Techniques) that has undergone a complete transformation and now largely emphasizes the main concepts of green chemistry. Not only is the theory discussed in lecture, but the students are also strongly encouraged (and graded on their ability) to integrate green chemistry practices into their experiments in the laboratory.[1]

Green Chemistry for TAs Handout - page 1

We created this handout to encourage TAs to teach their students the basics of green chemistry [PDF].

Although this initiative has emphasized educating the undergraduate students, we found that the teaching assistants (TAs) and laboratory demonstrators did not always have a strong training in green chemistry themselves, and therefore did not necessarily feel comfortable teaching green chemistry concepts to their students. With this in mind, our next goal was to create a handout for TAs that would contain a concise explanation of green chemistry, along with some tips that they could use to help encourage students to align their thinking with the 12 principles of green chemistry. This handout, entitled “Tips for Teaching Green Chemistry to Students (pdf)” contains a brief explanation of green chemistry and lists the 12 principles of green chemistry with a short summary to highlight each one. The handout also includes suggestions on how to encourage undergraduate students to properly implement these principles into their laboratory practice.

Subsequently, we chose to highlight four key teaching points (pdf) through fun graphics that help emphasize the importance of green chemistry in the lab. The key points are as follows: 1) Work on a small scale, 2) A higher LD50 (median lethal dose) value typically indicates a safer chemical, 3) Minimize solvent use when washing glassware, and 4) Separate waste in the correct container so it can be disposed of accordingly. By simplifying and highlighting these important points, we hope that TAs will feel more comfortable teaching a few basic green chemistry concepts to their students, and similarly, we hope that the students will gain a better understanding of how to apply the principles of green chemistry to real-world situations in the laboratory.

Green Chemistry for TAs Handout - page 2

Starting from the perspective of undergrad labs, we picked these 4 key green chemistry teaching points to emphasize to the TAs [PDF].

We anticipate that by reaching out to the graduate students who teach the lab component of the undergraduate courses, they will themselves be more comfortable and excited to teach students about green chemistry, including the straightforward substitutions and modifications it has to offer. Ultimately, we hope to see more enthusiasm among the undergraduate students as they grasp the importance and benefits of including green chemistry in the laboratory component of their courses and potentially research laboratories in the future.


[1] Edgar, L. J. G.; Koroluk, K. J.; Golmakani, M. and Dicks, A. P. J. Chem. Ed. 2014, 91, 1040-1043.

A Green Iodine Clock Reaction

By Judy Tsao, Member-at-Large for the GCI

The iodine clock is a popular chemistry demonstration among high school teachers and science demonstrators. In this activity, two clear and colourless solutions are mixed together, which leads to no initial observable change. However, after a short period of time the mixture abruptly turns deep blue.

Clock Reaction

This variation of the iodine clock reaction has the same dramatic colour change as the traditional demo!

In addition to the dramatic colour change, this activity also serves to illustrate important concepts in reaction kinetics. The time it takes for the colour change to take place can be altered by varying the concentration and temperature of the solutions. A number of similar procedures can be found online, yet the overall reaction always consists of the same three steps: 1) In the first step, iodine is reduced to iodide, 2) iodide then gets oxidized back to iodine, and finally 3) the iodine reacts with the starch contained in the mixture to give the deep blue colour. The first step is faster than the second step, thus no change is observed until all the reducing agents in the solution are consumed and step 1 cannot occur anymore, allowing step 2 to proceed to step 3.

While the reagents required for the iodine clock reaction can be easily found in a chemistry research lab, they are not necessarily the most user-friendly when it comes to doing this demonstration in a public setting. Typically, one solution containing sodium bisulfite, potassium iodide, and soluble starch and a second solution containing 20% hydrogen peroxide and concentrated sulfuric acid are employed in the demonstration. I began doing chemistry demonstrations at local high schools and quickly realized that this experiment would be challenging as it is not feasible for me to use some of these reagents; both 20% hydrogen peroxide and concentrated sulfuric acid are corrosive and must be treated before disposal.

Clock reaction ingredients

All the reagents needed for this modified procedure of the iodine clock demonstration.

Luckily, I stumbled upon a very well written paper published in the Journal of Chemical Education where the authors managed to achieve the same demonstration using only consumer products. With the authors’ modifications, no concentrated acid or peroxide is needed. I was able to purchase all the required reagents at Shoppers Drug Mart and the demonstration can be safely repeated by students at home. The first solution in the new procedure is made up of vitamin C powder dissolved in water and a few drops of tincture of iodine, while the second contains 3% hydrogen peroxide and laundry starch. The same results are achieved – a dramatic colour change that gets students excited about chemistry. The difference now is that I could comfortably carry all the required chemicals on public transit and could rinse all of the waste from this demonstration safely down the sink.

The transportation of reagents and the safe disposal of chemicals are often two of the biggest challenges facing chemistry demonstrators. Putting green chemistry principles into practice by eliminating the use of toxic chemicals and hazardous waste is an excellent way to help mitigate these challenges. Additionally, it helps students understand the importance of green chemistry at an early stage in their learning career.


“The Vitamin C Clock Reaction”, S. W. Wright and P. Reedy, J. Chem. Ed. 200279, p 41.

Green Chemistry Applied In Industry: Our 2015 Symposium

By Karl Demmans, 2015 Symposium Coordinator for the GCI

Following the success over the past couple years with our workshops entitled “Future Leaders in Green Chemistry” and “Next Steps in Green Chemistry Research”, we felt that the next logical step after teaching chemists how to apply green chemistry in their own research would be to have a symposium highlighting how these techniques are implemented by the chemical industry in the working world. Therefore we focused on obtaining lecturers from industries across Canada and the United States such as Xerox, VWR, Sigma Aldrich, Dow, 1366 Technologies, Proteaf Technologies, Green Chemistry & Commerce Council, and many more.

Starting off the event was Dr. Andy Dicks’ Crash Course which covered the basics of green chemistry while incorporating industrial case studies from recent years. The industrial lectures followed over two full symposium days, covering a variety of topics with three main goals: 1) how companies are bridging the gap between academia and industry, particularly by adopting promising chemistry from academia, 2) how companies are connecting with each other globally to instill better practices such as industrial transparency through environmental sustainability reports, and 3) chemical synthetic case examples exploring the diverse area that is the industrial green chemistry of today. A few academic lecturers were also invited to share their knowledge of solvent-free chemistry and applying green chemistry to DFT calculations.


Symposium participants learn about each other’s research during the poster session.

The final lecture, compiled by the GCI and presented by yours truly, was entitled “Preparing for the Future: Advice from Industry”. This lecture presented the responses from our invited speakers to a few questions we asked them, based on the necessary skill sets and experience required to push forward your resume when applying for an industry-based job, as well as their view of working in an industrial lab vs an academic setting. In the end, the best advice was to educate yourself broadly in science and in business, be active with extracurriculars during your studies, and most importantly to develop communication and people skills!

Highlights from the symposium included poster presentations featuring 14 posters (three of which won a monetary prize in a poster competition), dinner with the speakers in small groups, and a social event held at Harvest Kitchen with hors-d’oeuvres and drinks.


Group picture taken during the social night!

Of course, we’d like to thank our sponsors for their funding to make this event possible: UofT Environmental Resource Network (UTERN), the UofT Chemistry department, GreenCentre Canada, UTGSU, and Ulife. Special thanks goes to Universal Promotions, who were very helpful in the process of making GCI notebooks for our symposium swag.

If you’d like to see more details including a full schedule of our 2015 Symposium, click here. ACCN also published an article featuring our event, please check it out here!

We’re already planning the theme and speakers for our 2016 Symposium, so stay tuned through our social media accounts for more announcements.

Thanks for stopping by and have a great day!

Green Chemistry Principle #5: Safer Solvents and Auxiliaries

By Laura Reyes, Co-Chair for the GCI

5. Safer Solvents and Auxiliaries: The use of auxiliary substances (e.g. solvents, separation agents, etc.) should be made unnecessary wherever possible and innocuous when used.

The 5th principle of green chemistry promotes the use of Safer Solvents and Auxiliaries. This includes any substances that do not directly contribute to the structure of the reaction product but are still necessary for the chemical reaction or process to occur. In the video for Principle #5, we talk about the impact of solvent waste and illustrate it by substituting dichloromethane, a commonly-used solvent, with a safer alternative.

Solvents are the most common example of auxiliary substances. Usually, solvents themselves do not react with the reagents but are still necessary in reactions in order to dissolve reagents, mix all reaction components, and control the temperature of the reaction. After the reaction, more solvents are then often used to separate and purify the product from other reaction components and any side-products.

This reliance on solvents means that a massive amount of solvent waste is generated during a typical chemical reaction. Reducing solvent use is therefore usually a high priority for chemists working on making their reactions greener, especially when working on an industrial scale.

For example, Pfizer was able to reduce the amount of solvent waste generated in its synthesis of Viagra from 1300 kilograms to just 22 kilograms for every kilogram of Viagra made.[1] This huge reduction, and others like it throughout the chemical industry, ends up making a big difference in the resulting environmental impact and demand on resources.

Although reducing solvent amounts altogether is certainly important, it’s also good to remember that every solvent has its own properties. A toxic and environmentally persistent solvent like dichloromethane should be avoided whenever possible. Many guides have been created to help chemists replace solvents of concern, such as these guides by Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, and Sanofi. A recent paper also compiled these guides into a more comprehensive overview.

In our video, we used column chromatography to show an example of solvent substitution in action. Column chromatography is a separation method commonly used by chemists. It works very well for separations but, like many other solvent-based separation methods, the downside is that a large amount of solvent is required.


We separated compounds found in spinach extract using column chromatography, to show how solvents can be substituted for safer choices.

We used a convenient guide for substituting dichloromethane in our column chromatography demo.[2] Using this guide, we replaced the dichloromethane/ethyl acetate (95:5) mixture in Column 1 with its alternative of heptane/isopropanol (85:15) mixture in Column 2. We then compared the separation of compounds in spinach extract between the two columns.

Column chromatography is a complicated process with a lot of factors to consider, so we had to simplify it for the purpose of the video. This YouTube video explains the basics very well for those who want to learn more. Essentially, the compounds that flow through the column are passed between the solid phase (the silica gel in the column) and the liquid phase (the solvent) at different rates, which causes them to separate as they travel downwards. The solvent choice greatly influences how well compounds separate. Although no two solvents work exactly the same way, substitution guides like the one we used in our video have already done the tedious work to help chemists choose the greenest option that will work for their reactions.

Considering the integral use of solvents throughout chemistry, the implementation of Principle #5 in even seemingly small ways can end up drastically reducing the amount of solvents used altogether and move towards safer options whenever solvents are required.


[1] Pfizer’s reduction of waste in Viagra production: P. J. Dunn, et al., Green Chem. 2004, 6, 43-48.

[2] Dichloromethane use, concerns, and substitution in column chromatography: J. P. Taygerly, et al., Green Chem. 2012, 14, 3020-3025.

Solvent selection guides:

Pfizer: K. Alfonsi, et al., Green Chem. 2008, 10, 31-36.

GlaxoSmithKline: R. K. Henderson, et al., Green Chem. 2011, 13, 854-862.

Sanofi: D. Prat, et al., Org. Process Res. Dev. 2013, 17 (12), 1517-1525.

Compilation of guides: D. Prat, et al.Green Chem. 201416, 4546-4551.