ACS Summer School on Green Chemistry and Sustainable Energy 2017

ACS Summer School on Green Chemistry and Sustainable Energy 2017

By Samantha Smith, Yuchan Dong, and Shira Joudan

Yuchan Dong, who previously studied in China, had begun to miss life with roommates while in Canada. She reminisced about how you could talk about your lives late into the night, and spend meals chatting with friends in the cafeteria. “Luckily, at the ACS summer school, [she] got the chance to experience such life again and got to know a lot people who share same interests.” The summer school brought us back to the more carefree times of our undergraduate lives. Living in dormitories, sharing a floor with fifty-two other highly educated students, sharing every meal with our newly-formed friends, and even tackling homework assignments were just like the “good old days”. The level of diversity strengthened the value of peer-networking and real friendships were made throughout the week.

ACS Summer School blog1

The week wasn’t just filled with relaxing chats in the Colorado sun; that was merely how we spent our free time. The days were jam-packed with riveting lectures during the day, assignments in the evening, and getting to know the local Golden beers at night (which was obviously a duty of ours as tourists). We also had the chance to take in the local scenery with hikes and whitewater rafting.

The ACS summer school on green chemistry is a competitive program offered to graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and industry members every year in Golden, Colorado. Hosted by the Colorado School of Mines, the program consists of five days of lectures from green chemistry and sustainable energy experts, two poster sessions, a whitewater rafting trip, and lots of opportunity for networking. This program teaches global sustainability challenges with a focus on sustainable energy. The ACS Summer School is free of charge for successful attendees, including travel, accommodation on campus, and meals.

ACSblog5_IMG_6689

Samantha, Yuchan, and Shira at the ACS Summer School

Jim Hutchison, a professor at the University of Oregon, spoke about how his department has completely reformatted their undergraduate chemistry curriculum to contain green and sustainable chemistry, something that particularly sparked Shira’s interest as lead of GCI’s Education Subcommittee. Bill Tolman, Chair of the University of Minnesota Chemistry Department, shared how students successfully cultivated the safety culture within his department. This had inspired Samantha to create new initiatives within our chemistry department. Queens University’s Professor Philip Jessop taught us about Life-Cycle Analysis (LCA) and assigned us multiple processes for which we calculated the gate-to-gate LCA. Mary Kirchhoff and David Constable from ACS gave talks on green chemistry and ACS resources, many of which would be useful to other departments. The format of the summer school allowed plenty of time to chat with the guest lecturers during coffee breaks, lunches, and poster sessions.

Many real-world issues were discussed. The worldwide energy usage and sources of energy were a main topic of discussion, as was the use of alternative sources. We were blown away by how multi-disciplinary green chemistry is, and we were enlightened on how we need experts in all fields to successfully create sustainable chemistry. We learned that to be able to effectively tackle environmental issues we need great synthetic chemists, whether they specialize in organic, materials or catalysis, as well as analytical chemists, engineers, environmental chemists, and toxicologists. We also need effective entrepreneurs and lobbyists.

Nearing the end of the summer school, a large group of us hiked up Tabletop mountain to get the most amazing view of the valley. A warm feeling of appreciation towards the summer school for bringing us out of the isolation of individual research in the busy city life was shared. We would like to thank ACS for giving us the chance to attend this amazing week. This experience has truly been beneficial to us, and we plan to use the knowledge gained during the week in our own studies as well as pass this knowledge on to our coworkers at the University of Toronto.

ACS Summer School blog 4_image2

Tabletop mountain in Golden, CO

We highly encourage anyone interested in green chemistry and sustainability to attend this beneficial program. Application deadlines are early in the year and submitted online. The application consists of the applicant’s CV, unofficial transcript, letter of nomination from faculty advisor or another faculty member, and a one-page essay describing your interest in green chemistry and sustainability as well as how it will benefit the applicant.

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.

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

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

References

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: https://www.chemistryworld.com/feature/stepping-toward-ideality/5190.article

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

Green Chemistry at CSC2017 – The 100th Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition

By Kevin Szkop and Alex Waked

This year, the GCI partnered with the Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC), the organizing body of the CSC2017, to be closely involved in various aspects of Canada’s largest chemistry meeting.

In collaboration with GreenCentre Canada and CIC, the GCI organized a Professional Development Workshop as part of the CSC2017 program. This event consisted of four components:

The green chemistry crash course, led by Dr. Laura Reyes. Laura is a founding member of the GCI, and is now working in marketing & communications with GreenCentre Canada.

A case study, led by Dr. Tim Clark, Technology Leader at GreenCentre Canada. The case study gave attendees a unique opportunity to learn about some projects that GreenCentre has been developing and in collaboration with peers, learn how to find applications for new intellectual property (IP) and how to make contacts within relevant companies.

Kevin CSC blog 1

Dr. Tim Clark leading the GreenCentre Canada Industry Case Study

Career panel discussion, sponsored by Gilead, featuring members of academia and industry.

A coffee mixer for an opportunity for informal networking.

 

Supplementary to the Professional Development Workshop, the GCI organized a technical session, co-hosted by the Inorganic, Environmental, and Industrial sections of the conference. This new symposium, entitled “Recent Advances in Sustainable Chemistry”, brought together students, professors, industry, and government speakers to showcase a diverse and engaging collection of new trends in green and sustainable chemistry practices across all sectors of chemistry. Highlighted talks included Dr. Martyn Poliakoff from the University of Nottingham, also a CSC2017 Plenary Lecturer, Dr. David Bergbreiter from Texas A&M University, and Dr. William Tolman from the University of Minnesota.

Kevin CSC blog 2

Dr. Martyn Poliakoff teaching the audience about NbOPO4 acid catalysts found in Brazilian mines

Dr. Bergbreiter’s lecture was an engaging one. His enthusiastic approach to the use of renewable and bio-derived polymers as green solvents was captivating to both industrial and academic chemists.

Dr. Martyn Poliakoff, a plenary speaker at the conference, gave a phenomenal talk during the first day of the symposium. His charismatic style complimented perfectly the cutting-edge research ongoing in his group at the University of Nottingham. Particularly interesting was the use of flow processes in tandem with photochemistry to yield large quantities of natural products useful in the drug industries.

Dr. Tolman’s talk was of interest to essentially anyone working in an academic environment, especially for student run groups, like the GCI, with both academic interests as well as safety awareness initiatives. In the first part of the talk, synthetic and mechanistic studies of renewable polymers were discussed. The second part shifted focus to student-led efforts to enhance the safety culture in academic labs, which stood out from most of the other talks in our symposium.

One highlight was a group of graduate students at the University of Minnesota organizing a tour of Dow Chemicals to observe the work and safety codes in an industrial setting, which they used as a lesson to bring back to their own research labs. This caught the eye of most of the GCI members, which inspired us to organize a similar day trip in the future.

In further efforts to make our symposium accessible to undergraduate and graduate students, the GCI partnered with GreenCentre Canada to award five Travel Scholarships to deserving students from across Canada to provide financial aid to participate in the conference.

We thank all of our speakers, both national and international, for their participation in the program. It was a great success!

 

Issues of Sustainability in Laboratories Outside the Field of Chemistry: Pipette Tips

Issues of Sustainability in Laboratories Outside the Field of Chemistry: Pipette Tips

By David Djenic, Member-at-Large for the GCI

As a biochemistry student in the Green Chemistry Initiative, I’m interested in looking at how to implement the principles of green chemistry in molecular biology and biochemistry labs. While molecular biology labs focus more on studying biological systems and molecules rather than synthesizing new molecules, like in synthetic chemistry, there are still problems when it comes to performing environmentally sustainable research.

Pipette tips and pipette tip racks are major contributors to non-chemical waste in biomedical labs because of the volume of tips thrown out and the lack of recycling programs to deal with tips and racks. Pipette tip racks are commonly used because they reduce the risk of contaminating pipette tips. Pipette tip racks are made of #5 plastic (polypropylene), the same material as yogurt cups, medicine bottles and David_blog 1microwavable containers, making them lightweight and very safe to use [1].
However, #5 plastics are rarely accepted by curbside recycling programs and are placed in landfills and incinerators instead [2]. The plastic from the empty polypropylene racks take hundreds, if not thousands, of years to degrade [3].

Biomedical companies have worked in the past 10 years to reduce the amount of waste from pipette tip racks. For example, Anachem, a pipette and pipette tip manufacturing company in the UK, has collaborated with a plastic recycling company to collect racks from qualifying laboratories, ground them down, melt them, and remould into new products [3]. A similar program is run at the Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) division of the National Cancer Institute at Frederick (NCI-Frederick), where, from 2003 to 2006, approximately 8,400 pounds of pipette tip boxes were recycled, saving approximately $7,400 in medical waste contract money [4].

David_blog 2

Pipette tip box waste to be recycled through the EHS program [4].

There aren’t many statistics on the waste produced by the pipette tips themselves. But whenever I’m in a biochemistry lab course, the orange bins where used tips are thrown are filled to the brim with pipette tips, microcentrifuge tubes, Falcon tubes, etc. It is more difficult to reduce and recycle tips rather than tip racks because they are heavily contaminated after use. GreenLabs at the University of Chicago offers some interesting suggestions on reducing pipette waste, such as using pipette tip refills, buying pipette tips made from sustainable material, and generally reducing pipette tip use when possible. However, more research on pipette tip waste is needed to quantifiably analyze the impact of tips and come up with solutions to reduce potential waste.

I think undergraduate biomedical teaching and research labs do apply basic green chemistry principles, even if they are not explicitly brought up. Many of the reactions are done in very small, precise quantities and waste is generally disposed of in the proper place. However, there does not seem to be much exposure, if at all when it comes to green chemistry issues; biochemistry and biomedical students aren’t aware of the environmental impact they generate in labs. Introducing green chemistry education in biomedical laboratories at U of T, especially when it comes to the issue of pipette tips and racks, would help U of T reduce its environmental impact even more.

 

References

[1] http://www.davidsuzuki.org/publications/downloads/2010/plasticsbynumber.pdf

[2] http://earth911.com/home/recycling-mysteries-5-plastics/

[3] http://www.labnews.co.uk/features/consumables-dont-cost-the-earth-01-07-2005/

[4] G. A. Ragan, J. Chem. Health Saf. 2007, 14, (6) 17-20.  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1871553206001344

Taking Concrete Steps to CO2 Sequestration

Taking Concrete Steps to CO2 Sequestration

By Annabelle Wong, Member-at-Large for the GCI

With heightened concerns on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in recent years, scientists and engineers have come up with some innovative solutions to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions. One solution is to utilize and covert CO2 to everyday products such as fuels and plastics. Recently I learned that CO2 is now being converted into cement on an industrial scale.

Concrete is the most common construction material for buildings, roads, and bridges. Cement is one of the components of concrete and acts as a glue to hold concrete together. However, cement manufacturing is an energy-intensive process and the cement/concrete industry is one of the biggest CO2 emitters. In fact, 5% of the global GHG emission stems from cement production.1–3 To understand why so much CO2 is released, let’s first take a look at how cement is produced.

To make cement, limestone (calcium carbonate, CaCO3), silica (SiO2), clay (containing mostly Al2O3), and water are mixed and heated. This reaction produces a significant amount of CO2 and is called calcination. During calcination, at temperatures above 700 °C, limestone is decomposed to lime, or calcium oxide, and CO2 (Reaction 1). Then, lime reacts with SiO2 to form calcium silicates (C2S in simplified cement chemist notation, where C = CaO, S = SiO2) and tricalcium silicates (C3S) as the temperature ramps up to 1500 °C (Figure 1). The final product, called clinker, is then cooled and milled into a fine power. Afterwards, minerals such as gypsum (CaSO4) are added to make cement.4 A useful animation of cement making can be found here.5

CaCO3 (s) → CaO (s) + CO2↑ (g)                   (1)

annabelle_blog_feb2017-2

Figure 1. Raw materials are heated up to 1500 degrees C to synthesize clinker. The ratios of products yielded at various temperatures are shown. [4]

CO2 generated via calcination actually only consists of 50% of the total CO2 emission from cement production, while 40% comes from fuel combustion for heating the reaction and 10% comes from electricity usage and transportation.6,7

The idea of rendering the cement process more sustainable is to capture CO2 from a cement plant’s flue gas and convert it to the starting material of cement, CaCO3, creating a carbon neutral process. Scientists and engineers have been developing different technologies to achieve this goal. For example, at Calera, a company in California, CO2 is first converted to carbonic acid. Then, Ca(OH)2, which can be found in industrial waste streams, is added to convert carbonic acid to CaCO3 and water. The overall reaction is shown in Reaction 2.8

CO2 + Ca(OH)2 → CaCO3 +H2O                     (2)

Iizuka et al.9 suggested that the Ca(OH)2 and calcium silicates can be extracted from waste concrete, such as concrete from dismantled buildings, as a source of calcium ions. Their methodology is similar to Calera’s, but the carbonic acid is used for the extraction of calcium ions from waste cement (Figure 2).9 Furthermore, Vance et al. has shown that liquid and supercritical CO2 can accelerate the formation of CaCO3 from Ca(OH)2.1

annabelle_blog_feb2017-3

Figure 2. Recycling CO2 and concrete to make limestone, the starting material of cement. [9]

On the other hand, CarbonCure, a Canadian company, takes a slightly different approach in CO2 sequestration in the concrete industry. In their technology, CO2 is incorporated in the concrete production process, rather than the cement production process. CO2 is injected into the wet concrete mixture, where it is mixed with water to form carbonates (Reactions 1-3 in Figure 2). Then, the carbonates react with the existing Ca2+ in cement to form calcium carbonate nanoparticles, or limestone nanoparticles (Reaction 6 in Figure 2), which are well distributed in the concrete. This technique not only upcycles CO2, but also increases the compressive strength of the material due to these limestone nanoparticles.10

As mentioned above, fuel combustion and use of electricity also contribute to the CO2 emissions of cement production. In this way, other efforts to reduce CO2 emissions include recovering heat from the cooled clinker,5 utilization of alternative fuels, reduction of clinker in cement,3,11 and utilization of cement to absorb CO2.2

With innovative research, development, and commercialization of CO2 conversion technologies, I am optimistic that they will have a solid impact in the near future at the global scale. However, despite the current advances in CO2 conversion technology, a collaborative effort on both CO2 capture and utilization, along with the infrastructure to bridge these two technologies together, is essential to realize a carbon- neutral society.

References

(1)         Vance, K.; Falzone, G.; Pignatelli, I.; Bauchy, M.; Balonis, M.; Sant, G. 2015.

(2)         Torrice, B. M. Chemical and Engineering News. November 2016, p 8.

(3)         Crow, J. M. Chemistry World. 2008.

(4)         Maclaren, D. C.; White, M. A. J. Chem. Educ. 2003, 80 (6), 623–635.

(5)         Cement Making Process http://www2.cement.org/basics/images/flashtour.html.

(6)         Explore Cement http://www.wbcsdcement.org/index.php/about-csi/explore-cement?showall=&start=2.

(7)         Mason, S. UCLA scientists confirm: New technique could make cement manufacturing carbon-neutral http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/ucla-scientists-confirm:-new-technique-could-make-cement-manufacturing-carbon-neutral.

(8)         The Process http://www.calera.com/beneficial-reuse-of-co2/process.html.

(9)         Iizuka, A.; Fujii, M.; Yamasaki, A.; Yanagisawa, Y. Ind. Eng. Chem. Res. 2004, 43, 7880–7887.

(10)      Technology http://carboncure.com/technology/.

(11)      Cement Industry Energy and CO2 Performance: Getting the Numbers Right (GNR); 2016.

Challenges in Designing Non-Toxic Molecules: Using medicinal chemistry frameworks to help design non-toxic commercial chemicals

By Shira Joudan, Education Committee Coordinator for the GCI

Throughout the past 20 years, there have been numerous reports on the state of the science of designing non-toxic molecules, including three in this year alone.1–3 The idea of safe chemicals has been around for much longer than the green chemistry movement, however it is an important pillar in what it means for a chemical to be green. In fact, many scientists agree that the synthesis of safer chemicals is likely the least developed area of Green Chemistry, with lots of room for improvement.2 For more information, see our post and video on Green Chemistry Principle #4.

One expert on designing non-toxic molecules is Stephen C. DeVishira-blog-picto of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). In a recent paper DeVito highlights some major challenges creating safer molecules, and discusses how we can approach this challenge.1 We require a societal change about how we think of toxicity, and this shift must begin with specific education.

How can we agree upon definition of a “safe” chemical?

We need to decide and agree upon parameters that deem a molecule safe, or non-toxic. Generally, most chemists agree that an ideal chemical will have no (or minimal) toxicity to humans or other species in the environment. It should also not bioaccumulate or biomagnify in food chains, meaning it should not build up in biota, or increase in concentration with increased trophic levels in a food chain. After its desired usage, an ideal chemical should break down to innocuous substances in the environment. Potency and efficacy are also important, as well as the “greenness” of its synthesis. Setting quantitative thresholds to these parameters and enforcing them is the largest challenge.

How do we tackle the over 90,000 current use chemicals?

Although not all of these chemicals are actually in use, they are all registered under the US EPA’s Toxic Substances Control Act (TCSA), which contains both toxic and non-toxic chemicals. Many chemicals that are being used should be replaced with safer alternatives, but there are so many that it seems terrifying to know where to begin. Another replacement option is designing new technologies that don’t require the function that these chemicals provide. About two-thirds of the chemicals registered in TCSA or Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Chemicals Management Plan were in use before registration was required. Unlike pharmaceuticals and pesticides which are heavily regulated by Health Canada, commercial chemicals do not require stringent toxicity tests. But things are changing in the US and in Canada. For example, Canada has just listed 1550 priority chemicals that will be addressed by 2020. When considering replacement for chemicals of concern, the most common barrier to reducing the use is currently “no known substitutes or alternative technologies”.

How do we ensure sufficient training on the concepts of safer chemical design?

Many people making new chemicals are unfamiliar with green chemistry and basic toxicology principles. Without the proper toolbox of knowledge designing safer chemicals is challenging. [The Green Chemistry Commitment is a great place to start!] DeVito discusses the need for “toxicological chemists” which would be analogous to medicinal chemists, but instead produce non-toxic commercial chemicals. Medicinal chemists have the training to design appropriate pharmaceuticals, however commercial chemicals do not receive the same attention in terms of designing safe and efficacious products. Since humans are exposed to the commercial chemicals as well, often in intimate settings, the same attention to detail should be used during the synthetic process in order to produce safe chemicals.

Synthetic organic chemists are the ones designing the new chemicals, and we can no longer keep traditional chemists and toxicologists an arm’s length apart. Instead, there is a need for a new type of scientist that considers the function of the chemical for its desired usage and its toxicity potential to humans and the environment. Similar to the training of medicinal chemists, these chemists should receive training in biochemistry, pharmacology and toxicology, and also in environmental fate processes. DeVito suggests adding topics into an undergraduate curriculum, some of which are highlighted here:

  • Limit bioavailability: A common way to prevent toxicity has been to reduce the bioavailability of molecules. Essentially, the idea is that if the chemical cannot be absorbed into the bloodstream of humans or other species, it will not be able to cause significant toxic effects. A common predictor for bioavailability is the “Rule of 5”, where a molecule will have poor absorption if it contains more than five hydrogen bond donors or 10 hydrogen bond acceptors, a molecular weight of more than 500 amu, and a logP (or log Kow) of greater than 5.4 More sophisticated prediction methods also exist based on linear free energy relationships. A good example of low bioavailability is the artificial sweetener sucralose, where only 15% of the chemical is absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract into the bloodstream.5
  • Isosteric substitutions of molecular substituents: By removing parts of the molecule and replacing it with another functional group with similar physical and chemical properties (isosteric) toxicity can be reduced. This is common in medicinal chemistry, where it is referred to as bioisosterism, and is used to reduce toxicity, alter bioavailability and metabolism. A simple substitution can be replacing a hydrogen atom for a fluorine atom, but there can also be much larger isosteric substitutions.
  • Designing for degradation: A toxic molecule that persists in the environment can lead to global long term exposure. Understanding common environmental breakdown mechanisms can allow us to design molecules that will break down to innocuous products after their desired usage. A good starting point is understanding aerobic microbial degradation, since most of our waste ends up at a wastewater treatment plant. An important thing to keep in mind is that if a non-toxic molecule degrades to a toxic molecule, the starting material will still be of concern.

Toxicity is complicated. The best way to arm the next generation of chemists with the skills needed to design smart, safe chemicals is to tailor the undergraduate education to our new goals.

Numerous institutions, including the University of Toronto, are working towards this by signing onto the Green Chemistry Commitment!

(1)         DeVito, S. C. On the design of safer chemicals: a path forward. Green Chem. 2016, 18 (16), 4332–4347.

(2)         Coish, P.; Brooks, B. W.; Gallagher, E. P.; Kavanagh, T. J.; Voutchkova-Kostal, A.; Zimmerman, J. B.; Anastas, P. T. Current Status and Future Challenges in Molecular Design for Reduced Hazard. ACS Sustain. Chem. Eng. 2016, 4, 5900–5906.

(3)         Jackson, W. R.; Campi, E. M.; Hearn, M. T. W.; Collins, T. J.; Voutchkova-Kostal, A. M.; Kostal, J.; Connors, K. A.; Brooks, B. W.; Anastas, P. T.; Zimmerman, J. B.; et al. Closing Pandora’s box: chemical products should be designed to preserve efficacy of function while reducing toxicity. Green Chem. 2016, 18 (15), 4140–4144.

(4)         Lipinski, C. A.; Lombardo, F.; Dominy, B. W.; Feeney, P. J. Experimental and computational approaches to estimate solubility and permeability in drug discovery and development setting. Adv. Drug Deliv. Rev. 2001, 46, 3–26.

(5)         Roberts, A.; Renwick, A. G.; Sims, J.; Snodin, D. J. Sucralose metabolism and pharmacokinetics in man. Food Chem. Toxicol. 2000, 38, 31–41.