Boat Antifouling Technology: the problems and the green chemistry solutions!

Boat Antifouling Technology: the problems and the green chemistry solutions!

By Alana Rangaswamy (Vice-President, Dalhousie University Green Chemistry Initiative)


The iconic Halifax Ferry is one of many boats to traverse the Harbour every day.

One great part of attending Dalhousie University is living steps away from the ocean. Much of Halifax’s history and development is due to its access to water, both as a naval base and port of call. With the massive amount of boat traffic seen daily by the harbour, marine industries strive to maximize the efficiency of travel. And one major way to do that is preventing small creatures from hitching a ride on your boat, causing drag and lowering the efficiency of your vessel. Enter antifoulants: coatings that kill organisms or otherwise block their ability to stick onto your ship. Antifouling is a necessary technology, but introducing biocidal agents into a marine environment, unsurprisingly, poses many environmental challenges. Let’s take a look at two commonly used antifoulants, their issues, and how scientists have tried to fix them:


You may have heard of tributyltin (TBT) as a biocidal agent. TBT is an excellent poison – effectively nonpolar due to its alkyl groups, it’s able to accumulate in organisms, rapidly killing them due to the high toxicity of SnIII. This property makes TBT an extremely effective antifouling agent, however, it easily leaches from boat hull paint into the ocean where it persists due to its high stability. Fortunately, the dangers TBT have been recognized worldwide and use as a biocidal agent has been banned as of 20081. Canada jumped on the bandwagon slightly earlier, with the last TBT-containing paint product registered in 1999.2 With this restriction, the industry is searching for alternatives that are as effective as TBT, without the environmental drawbacks.


Copper as a bulk metal is naturally antiseptic, promoting the formation of reactive hydroxyl radical species which lead to cell death in living systems.3 Copper has been used on boat hulls since the 1700s, and now usually shows up in paints as its metal oxide4 or as a suspension of copper powder.5 Although copper is less bioavailable than TBT, it persists and continually forms unstable radical species (and can, therefore. wreak ecological havoc) in a marine environment. Since copper is widely considered the new “gold” standard in antifouling, the sheer amount of it present on (and leaching off of) boat hulls today points to a long-term impact.

New Antifouling Tech

Green chemistry and engineering are all about designing cleaner systems that work as well as, or better than, the existing standard. TBT and copper are high bars to clear, but scientists are up to the challenge. As early as 1996, the environmentally benign Sea-Nine antifouling compound had received the Designing Greener Chemistry Award as part of the US EPA’s Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge.6 Sea-Nine is a derivative of isothiazolinone, a 5-membered heterocycle containing nitrogen and sulfur atoms. The compound is acutely toxic to marine organisms at the surface of boats, but biodegrades rapidly in marine environments through a ring-opening mechanism to form non-toxic by-products. Sea-Nine (and its derivatives) is currently present in commercial boat hull paints,7 however, degradation times may vary based on geographical location and local environment8 so our job isn’t done yet.

There are many newer studies in the works. For instance, investigation has been done into using natural products as antifouling agents. Natural products are secondary metabolites produced by microorganisms as a defence mechanism in response to stress. As such, they often have antimicrobial properties, while being naturally biodegradable. For example, 1-hydroxymyristic acid, a simple alpha-hydroxy fatty acid, was isolated from the marine bacterium Shwanella oneidensis. When panels were coated with paint containing the fatty acid, and subsequently immersed in a marine environment, no growth of foulants was observed even after 1.5 years.9 Other studies have added hydrophobic coatings which disrupt the binding interactions between the microorganism and the vessel’s hull, and promote detachment due to the natural flow of the water over the hull.10 Some research has diverted away from chemical modifiers altogether, using microtextures, which remove the flat surfaces required for spores to settle,10 to deter growth. UV-LEDs11 which are mutagenic and cytotoxic at a small scale, have also been used to reduce growth of foulants.

The long history and many methods developed to prevent boat hull fouling demonstrates that this is an important and challenging problem. But many results are promising, and green chemists and engineers are well on their way to solving it.


  2. Health Canada – Consumer Product Safety Registrar

  1. Grass, G., Rensing, C., and Solioz, M. Metallic copper as an antimicrobial surface. Environ. Microbiol. 2011, 77, 1541-1547. DOI: 10.1128/AEM.02766-10.
  6. Chen, L. and Lam, J. C. W. SeaNine 211 as an antifouling biocide: a coastal pollutant of emerging concern. Environ. Sci., 2017, 61, 68-79. DOI: 10.1016/j.jes.2017.03.040.
  7. Qian, P-Y., Xu, Y. and Fusetani, N. Natural products as antifouling compounds: recent progress and future perspectives. Biofouling, 2009, 26, 223-234. DOI: 10.1080/08927010903470815.
  8. Salta, M. et al. Designing biomimetic antifouling surfaces. Trans. R. Soc. A, 2010, 368, 4729-4757. DOI:10.1098/rsta.2010.0195




Canada Becomes a Leader in Carbon Capture

Canada Becomes a Leader in Carbon Capture

By Karlee Bamford, Treasurer for the GCI

The attention of international media has been captured by the remarkable success in CO2 sequestration achieved by the Canadian company Carbon Engineering, located in Squamish, British Columbia. Sustainability-related, world-saving initiatives often have an easier sell in the media than, say, incremental advances reported by researchers on equally sustainable academic pursuits (rough, eh?). In this instance the craze over Carbon Engineering’s advances has been amplified by the news of their recent partnerships with household-name energy and oil giants, such as Chevron, BHP, and Occidental Petroleum, in the form of a CAD $68 million investment.  So, what is this incredible advance?

From the success of their pilot plant and the data they’ve accumulated thus far, Carbon Engineering implementation of their technology has achieved capture of The technology in question can be split into two major advances. Referred to as direct air capture, or DAC, the first process developed by Carbon Engineering involves the transfer of gaseous CO2 from ambient air to an absorber fluid, a strongly basic solution of sodium or potassium hydroxide. The transfer process is achieved using an air-liquid contactor, designed and described by the company in 2012,4 that involves an array of fans, pumps, cheap PVC piping and structure, and fluid distributors. These components are fundamentally no different than those commonly found in cooling towers used as heat exchangers for water cooling. However, the orthogonal geometry (Figure 1) of air (atmospheric, ~ 400 ppm CO2) and fluid (the absorber) flow differs significantly, making repurposing of existing cooling tower designs for DAC an inefficient and expensive strategy for CO2 capture.


Figure 1. Commercial realization of air-fluid contactor designed by Carbon Engineering. M = Na or K. Image obtained from CanTech Letter and modified.5

The CO2 taken up by the alkaline absorber fluid is converted to carbonate (CO32-) salts and can be precipitated from the aqueous solution by treatment with calcium hydroxide to give calcium carbonate pellets. The captured CO2 can thus be stored as calcium carbonate or can be cleanly regenerated as pure CO2 gas, with elimination of a CaO , at high temperatures (650 °C) for commercial resale. The byproduct CaO may even repurposed by conversion back to Ca(OH)2 in a lime slaker, using water.1 Carbon Engineering has been piloting this process at their facility in Squamish since 2015, according to their website, after having tested a smaller prototype from 2010 and published the performance results in 2013.6 At the time of Carbon Engineering’s founding and until as recently as 2018, no commercial-scale air capture systems had been developed, which was a direct result of the anticipated inefficiency of CO2 capture using conventional cooling tower designs.4 Undeterred, Carbon Engineering has proven otherwise with their innovative use of cross-flow geometry.

The second break-through technology from Carbon Engineering is their patented Air To FuelsTM process, which they’ve been piloting since 2017. Taking the stored CO2 from their DAC process, Carbon Engineering has successfully produced a clean, sulfur-free, source of hydrocarbon fuel that requires no further modification for consumer consumption. The process involves passing the regenerated CO2 gas through a reactor containing hydrogen (H2) gas to generate synthesis gas (syn-gas), a mixture of CO and . The syn-gas is then passed through a Fischer-Tropsch reactor where the synthetic hydrocarbon fuel is thermally generated over a heterogenous base-metal catalyst (e.g. iron, cobalt, nickel).7

The technologies have been developed by the research groups of founder and U of T alumnus Prof. David Keith. Prof. Keith is currently faculty at Harvard University in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. To date, the company has filed 13 patents and produced numerous publications describing their innovations. According to media reports,8 recent multimillion-dollar investments will allow their and the company has already signed a memorandum of understanding with Squamish First Nations about their intentions.9

One of the most attractive aspects of the DAC and Air to FuelsTM technology is location. Plants could, hypothetically, be built anywhere, as CO2 is well mixed in the atmosphere and Carbon Engineering’s technology does not require that CO2 capture occur at the point of CO2 generation as in, for example, CO2-scrubbers used in exhaust systems.

However, with the excitement surrounding Carbon Engineering’s projected ability to capture CO2 at low cost and high volume, controversy has inevitably been close to follow. The interest from large oil corporations in this technology may not be as principled in sustainability as it appears but driven in part by their need for large volumes of CO2 for so-called green fracking (hydraulic fracturing). Supporting further oil extraction in this way goes completely counter to the need for elimination of emissions that the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report clearly indicates must accompany advances in carbon capture and storage.10 Still, perhaps the positives outweigh the negatives in this instance. This very week, Environment and Climate Change Canada reported that Canada is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the globe.11 The need for efficient technologies to address climate change has never been more immediate. Fortunately, Carbon Engineering is not alone: at least two other companies with commercial plans for CO2 capture have started in Switzerland (Climeworks)12 and the USA (Global Thermostat).13 Whether the Canadian solution is adapted worldwide will depend not only upon Carbon Engineering, but also upon how these alternative approaches evolve.  For once, it is probably best not to pick a team to cheer for but, instead, hope that each country’s company develop a complimentary capture strategy to address the international dilemma that is climate change.


  1. Keith, D. W.; Holmes, G.; St. Angelo, D.; Heidel, K., Joule 2018, 2, 1573-1594.
  2. American Physical Society. Direct Air Capture of CO2 with Chemicals: A Technology Assessment for the APS Panel on Public Affairs. June 1, 2011 ; accessed April 24, 2019.
  3. Carbon Engineering, .
  4. Holmes, G.; Keith, D. W., Trans. R. Soc. A 2012, 370, 4380-403.
  5. Artist’s rendition of a commercial scale Carbon Engineering contactor, CanTech Letter. ; accessed April 4, 2019.
  6. Holmes, K. Nold, T. Walsh, K. Heidel, M. A. Henderson, J. Ritchie, P. Klavins, A. Singh and D. W. Keith, Energy Procedia, 2013, 37, 6079-6095.
  7. Heidel, Keton et al. Method and system for synthesizing fuel from dilute carbon dioxide source. WO2018112654A1, 2017.
  8. BBC News, Matt McGrath. Climate change: ‘Magic bullet’ carbon solution takes big step. April 3, 2019 ; accesed April 3, 2019.
  9. CBC News, Angela Sterritt. In fight to combat climate change, Squamish Nation joins forces to capture carbon. November 29, 2018. ; accesesd April 4, 2019.
  10. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2018 Summary for Policy Makers, Global Warming of 1.5 °C. ; accessed April 4, 2019.
  11. Environment and Climate Change Canada, Canada’s Changing Climate Report, April 1, 2019. ; accesed April 4, 2019.
  12. Climeworks,
  13. Global Thermostat,
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;

ACS Summer School on Green Chemistry and Sustainable Energy 2018

ACS Summer School on Green Chemistry and Sustainable Energy 2018

By Kevin Szkop and Rachel Hems

The Colorado School of Mines in Golden, CO is a wonderful campus with cutting-edge facilities and a great place to spend a week with 60 young scientists interested in green chemistry. This is where the ACS Summer School on Green Chemistry and Sustainable Energy was held from July 10 – 17. The group consisted of chemists and chemical engineers from North and South America, all with unique perspectives, experiences, and attitudes towards sustainability. Below is a photo of our awesome class!


The 2018 ACS Summer School on Green Chemistry and Sustainable Energy class

The program consisted of technical and professional development sessions. A highlight was a life cycle assessment group project and presentation, led by Prof. Philip Jessop from Queen’s University. During Professor Jessop’s lectures, we learned how to think about the “greenness” of a process, and how this often-nebulous concept is best used as a comparative tool. While every process likely has downfalls, using the green chemistry principles and metrics allowed us to think critically about which process has the least downfalls, and how to address these in our work. The assignment included a group project, during which groups of students had to evaluate the merits and drawbacks of 5 synthetic routes to the same product. In this context, we learned that it is not only the reagents that go into a flask, but everything that happens behind the scenes, including shipping of reagents, the type of waste generated, amount of energy consumed, and much, much more. As a synthetic chemist (Kevin), it really made me think about solvent consumption and work up techniques in my own work!

In addition to learning about green chemistry and sustainable energy, there were some great professional development lectures and activities. Dr. Nancy Jenson, the program manager for the Petroleum Research Fund at the ACS, gave an engaging talk on tips for writing research proposals and common mistakes that are made. While she gave examples from her experience at the Petroleum Research Fund, there were many lessons that could be applied to any type of proposal writing.

Another great professional development lecture was given by Joerg Schlatterer from the American Chemical Society. He gave an overview of the ACS’s many resources for young chemists, such as the Chem IDP website for career planning, workshops for prospective faculty organized by the Graduate & Postdoctoral Scholars Office, and the new Catalyzing Career Networking program at ACS National Meetings. As part of the career planning case study, we took some time to make some SMART goals for ourselves for the next two years. I (Rachel) found it’s really helpful to have others share their goals and give suggestions for yours to make them the SMARTest they can be!


Rafting down Clear Creek

Of course, we also had time to have fun! On the Saturday (also Rachel’s birthday!) we went white water rafting on Clear Creek. The river is mountain fed, so it was very cold, but it was a beautiful warm and sunny day! We had a great time rafting down the river, with a quick stop to jump in for a swim. It was a great way to spend my birthday! Throughout the week-long summer school, there was a decent amount of free time to enjoy the sunshine and the sights around Golden. Some of the fun things we got to do were swim in and raft down the river that goes through ‘downtown’ Golden, an early morning hike up the South Table Mountain, tour the Coors Brewery, and get to know all the other awesome chemists!


Kevin and Rachel enjoying the Golden nightlife after a long day of learning!

We highly recommend attending this summer school. It is a great opportunity to learn and to meet great people who care about sustainable chemistry! Read more about past GCI members that have attended the ACS Summer School in 2014 and  2017.

More information on the summer school and how to apply can be found online here.

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!

A New Green Chemistry Metric: The Green Aspiration Level™

A New Green Chemistry Metric: The Green Aspiration Level™

By Samantha A. M. Smith, Member-at-Large for the GCI

Sam_blog 1

Figure 1. Process materials – green mass metric relationships

Green Chemistry Principle number two, Atom Economy, focuses on metrics used to compare the efficiency of a reaction.1 However, Atom Economy doesn’t take into account solvents, reagents such as catalysts, drying agents, energy, or recyclability of any of the materials. Is it reasonable for an industry such as pharma to use such a metric? What about E-factor, which is a measure of process waste and, if “complete” (cEF = complete E-factor), also recyclability of solvents and catalysts? It’s known that the pharmaceutical industry generally has the highest E-factor values compared to petrochemicals, bulk, and fine chemicals, indicating more waste generated per mass of desired product.2 But if you wanted to compare your technology to already implemented pharmaceutical processes, where would you find such information?

Roschangar, Sheldon, and Senanayake created a new metric for such a purpose: the Green Aspiration Level™.3,4 This new metric allows one to compare an ideal process with the average commercial process in terms of environmental impact for the production of a pharmaceutical. Say you have an alternative product to Viagra™ and want to know if its production is more or less impactful. You could apply any of the existing metrics (including yield, atom economy, E-factor, and more, summarized in Table 1 of reference 3), or you could use the Green Aspiration Level™ (GAL). To do so, you determine the waste (Complete Environmental Impact Factor (cEF) or Process Mass Intensity (PMI)) and assess the complexity of the process, and use those to calculate the GAL, and in turn the Relative Process Greenness (RPG). From there, you can consult Table 1 (below) to determine the greenness rating of such a process.4

Waste and Complexity

Waste refers to a simple metric such as cEF or PMI (with reactor cleaning and solvent recycling excluded). Complexity of the process refers to the number of steps with no concession transformations, that is those that do not directly contribute to the building of the target molecules’ skeleton.5 The waste and complexity metrics require that the process starting materials are less than $100 USD/mol for proper comparison.

Green Aspiration Level™

Roschangar and coworkers have collected data on many commercial processes to develop an appropriate metric, and they currently use 26 kg of waste per kg of product as a standard based on their findings. This value is known as the average GAL, or tGAL.3,4

GAL        = (tGAL) x Complexity

= 26 x Complexity

Relative Process Greenness

RPG       = GAL/cEF

This metric is used as the comparison point for processes. The comparison can be done at different stages of development, either early or late development, and then again for those processes that are commercialized. In Table 1, there are minimum RPG values that will associate the process with an appropriate greenness percentile.

RPI         = RPG(current) – RPG(early)

RPG can also be used to determine the improvement of a process. From early development, to late development, to commercialization, the difference in consecutive RPG values will give your Relative (Green) Process Improvement (RPI). In this case, the higher the number the better.

Sam_blog 2

Table 1. Rating Matrix for Relative Process Greenness (RPG) in Pharmaceutical Drug Manufacturing [3]

It turns out the current commercial process for Viagra™ is actually quite efficient and is currently in the 90th percentile, exceeding the commercial average by 143% (RPG). The full process of determining and using this new metric, the Green Aspiration Level™, is described by Roschangar and coworkers in two very in-depth articles.3,4


1 Anastas, P. T., Warner, J. C. “Principles of green chemistry.” Green chemistry: Theory and practice (1998): 29-56.

2 Sheldon, R. A., Catalysis and Pollution Prevention, Chem. Ind. (London), 1997, 12–15.

3 Roschangar, F., Sheldon, R. A., Senanayake, C. H., Green Chem. 2015, 17, 752. DOI: 10.1039/C4GC01563K

4 Roschangar, F., Colberg, J., Dunn, P. J., Gallou, F., Hayler, J. D., Koenig, S. G., Kopach, M. E., Leahy, D. K., Mergelsberg, I., Tucker, J. L., Sheldon, R. A., Senanayake, C. H., Green Chem. 2017, 19, 281. DOI: 10.1039/c6gc02901a 

5 Crow, J. M., “Stepping toward ideality”, Chemistry World, accessed July 13th, 2017. URL:

Figures from Roschangar et al. 2015 reproduced with the permission of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

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.