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Green Chemistry and Clean Energy

David Levy's picture
University of Massachusetts, Boston (UMB)

David L. Levy received his doctorate from Harvard Business School and is now a Professor of Management and Chair of the Department of Management and Marketing at the University of Massachusetts...

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green-chemistryIn December, the University of Massachusetts, Boston (where I work) hosted three leading proponents of green chemistry for a panel discussion of the potential and challenges of the field. John Warner, widely considered the father of green chemistry, is a former chair of the UMass-Boston chemistry department and is currently the president and chief technology officer of the Warner Babcock Institute of Green Chemistry. Berkeley “Buzz” Cue, an alumnus of UMass Boston, retired from his position with Pfizer in 2004 as vice president at Groton R&D Laboratories. He has since founded BWC Pharma Consulting, focusing on green chemistry and pharmaceutical sciences. Richard A. Liroff founded the Investor Environmental Health Network in 2004, where he serves as executive director, following a twenty-five year career at World Wildlife Fund. The event was co-sponsored by our University’s Center for Green Chemistry and the Center for Sustainable Enterprise and Regional Competitiveness.

The speakers discussed the potential for green chemistry to make  production processes and final products safer in a variety of sectors, and to reduce waste and the use of toxic substances. At the same time, green chemistry can save companies money by reducing the need for costly chemicals, reagents and solvents, lowering insurance and legal costs, reducing waste disposal costs (which can exceed $5 per kg for some toxics), and saving energy. In the pharmaceutical industry, Buzz Cue noted that the ratio of waste to final product, called the E-factor could often reach 50 or 100. Applying green chemistry principles has the potential to cut this by a factor of 5 or 10. Pfizer has reduced the E-factor for Viagra from 108 to 8. Given that more than 1 billion kgs of pharmaceutical drugs are produced each year worldwide, the savings can quickly mount into the millions of dollars.

John Warner has developed a set of 12 principles that have become the cornerstone of green chemistry, and there are at least three common elements with the potential for substantial environmental benefits and cost savings: (1) simplifying the overall process, reducing the number of steps, and hence the need for solvents and reagents, and the attendant risks and energy use for heating and drying at each step (2) switching to safer processes and chemicals, frequently based on aqueous (water) solutions instead of organic chemicals (3) continuous process production with real time monitoring and control and (4) recycling chemicals used in the process.

The presentations and discussion got me thinking about the relationship between green chemistry and clean energy. There are some important similarities in the approaches:

1. It’s the economy, stupid! However important the health of the planet and our bodies are to us, the key to corporate adoption is making an effective business case. Advocates of clean energy and green chemistry have to demonstrate that investments meet the usual RoI hurdles (though they are frequently much less risky than investments in the core business, but that’s another story). For clean energy and green chemistry, there is plenty of low-hanging fruit, but cost is also a barrier for more systemic change.

2. Business model innovation is as important as technological innovation: The environmental benefits, and other co-benefits, need to be monetized, sometimes requiring creative business models. A lot can be done with existing technologies, but various market and non-market barriers exist, which business model innovation can help overcome.

3. The lean production principle: it’s usually cheaper, more reliable, and environmentally better to improve the core production process rather than add on “end of the pipe” solutions.

4.  Simplicity can require complexity: Einstein invested a lot of brains and sweat to arrive at E=MC2. Simple, elegant solutions that save money and reduce environmental impacts are not always easy to find, and often require substantial investments of time and money in chemical science and process engineering.

5. Systemic perspectives: analyzing an entire production system from raw materials to disposal of final product, using life cycle analysis, can help identify ways to cut costs and reduce use (and waste) of energy, water and chemicals.

6. Don’t go it alone! The industry needs to collaborate to address some larger institutional and regulatory issues. FDA regulations, for example, can hinder process changes in the pharmaceutical industry, so the sector has formed a group to work with regulators. In a similar way, the clean energy sector has to work with regulators to facilitate distributed power (e.g. for net metering) and to establish standards and protocols, for example, for carbon measurement and for smart grid software.

Only one of the twelve principles of green chemistry is explicitly about energy efficiency, and it suggests that reactions be designed for ambient temperatures. The call for renewable feedstocks and to maximize atom efficiency also relate to energy use, but overall, the principles are mostly focused on questions of toxicity, hazards, and waste reduction. Given the energy intensity of the chemical sector, from the feedstocks to production, distribution, and waste disposal, waste reduction inherently saves substantial amounts of energy.

There is a lot of room, however, to explore the relationship between green chemistry and energy efficiency more closely. Energy use generates its own waste, of course, from particulates to carbon dioxide and SOx and NOx, but while these create environmental and public health issues, they are not considered particularly toxic, and are not the focus of green chemistry. Moreover, the chemical and pharmaceutical industries buy their energy-intense feedstock materials from other firms upstream on the value chain, over which they have little direct control. The larger companies could perhaps learn something from Walmart’s experiences in pressing suppliers and customers along the value chain for action.

Green chemistry could also learn a lesson from the energy arena about the potential for end use conservation and efficiency. The green chemistry principles seem to take final demand for products as given, rather than look for ways to reduce production. There has been increasing attention recently to the over-prescription of some types of drugs, and large quantities many drugs are discarded for various reasons. Chemicals used for agriculture could be reduced with organic and other alternative practices. The problem here is that while utilities are frequently given incentives for end-use energy reduction, most industries don’t see a good business model in reduced sales and production. One exception is Monsanto, which finds it profitable to sell GM seeds that are matched with lower volume but proprietary chemical pesticides and herbicides.

Green chemistry can also be used directly for clean energy purposes. My son’s first internship was in one of Professor John Warner’s labs at UMass-Boston, testing various kinds of non-silicon PV cells for their efficiency and longevity. Chemistry is also key to biofuels production, from algae to cellulosic ethanol, and to identifying catalysts for fuel cells. There is active investigation of direct air capture (DAC) of CO2 using chemical processes, though costs are currently prohibitive. For market reasons, the large pharmaceutical and chemical companies with substantial research budgets have not focused their attention and resources on applying green chemistry for clean energy and climate mitigation purposes, though this is huge potential in this area.

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Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Jan 24, 2012

A very balanced outline of how broad the topic is. Our family has much to appreciate from the dairy processing industry. If critics focused on the the wrong part of the process, they could get some good PR. But I’m proud that a million customers per day can assume quality; now for over 30 years. A lot of process chemistry from field crops to grocery store.

I hope you look West, and see the opportunity in a transcontinental energy security chemistry now taking shape under the title “Keystone.” Let’s focus on doing some clean chemistry and not get blocked by a disaster scenario.

A daughter is an engineer for an electronics giant manufacturing in China. A very big world out there with very big demands. A “can do attitude” is the only way forward.

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