On September 27, ACS Publications hosted an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session with Crystal Growth & Design Editor-in-Chief Robin D. Rogers. Professor Rogers is an expert in the field of green chemistry, particularly in the use of ionic liquids in sustainable technologies. He currently serves as the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Green Chemistry and Green Chemicals at McGill University, and founded the Center for Green Manufacturing at the University of Alabama in 1998. Reddit users had a lot interesting (and detailed!) questions about sustainable chemistry practices, careers in the field, and more. Read below for some highlights:
/u/Chambana_Raptor: As a chemistry undergrad who recently began thinking about pursuing a career in sustainability, what is the best way to enter the industry? I’m particularly interested in finding new, or more efficient, ways to recycle rare/overused elements.
While I do have quite a few student loans to repay, money is not an issue. To be honest, I care more about contributing something to society than anything material. And I feel like this is one of the few fields I can combine my love for chemistry (especially in the laboratory) and my humanitarian drive.
As a secondary question, what are some good resources to educate myself on sustainability efforts? I’m sure there are all kinds of fascinating research projects out there beyond the scope of recycling, but I wouldn’t even know where to begin (in my entire undergrad I have only heard one professor even mention it–the very dialogue that caught my interest).
Robin D. Rogers: Great question! Here you will first have to ask yourself if you want to work for a traditional industry or whether you want to start your own company and become entrepreneurial. I honestly see great opportunities for entrepreneurs who bring ethical capitalism to the table. Another way of saying this is doing you want to go work for Kodak to make better photographic film (oops too late!) or do you want to build a company around digital photography?
I consider it a mindset. Many students I work with today want to make a difference as you do and sometimes there is no traditional route to do so. In my view not every chemical company around the world is on board with green chemistry yet, so yes you may need to find your own way.
One great place to start is with the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute. You can also check out the efforts at the University of Oregon.
I suggest you become active and push for the changes you think are needed. You see this around the World today, so why not in Chemistry as well?
/u/MethSC: What is crystal engineering?
Robin D. Rogers: I admire engineers for their ability to design, build, and operate plants at virtually any scale. Imagine if you had the knowledge and the tools to design any crystalline material at any scale with any form and with any functionality. Crystal Engineering studies the interactions between molecules (the tools) and uses this knowledge to design and build crystalline materials for very specific jobs.
/u/PM_ME_CAT_GIFS: Much synthetic chemistry depends on solvents, reagents, and moieties with environmental and health risks better understood now than in the past. However, in my anecdotal experience practices have only changed when dictated by immediate financial imperatives (eg. Added costs of waste disposal) and opportunities to make money off a promising compound appear capable of overriding prudence in some cases. Often new compounds are introduced to the marketplace without disclosure to the consumer buying the product or any other public scrutiny. Examples of these are halogenated organics in the food supply as well as the lack of disclosure in plasticizers, fragrances, and drilling fluids in the oil and gas industry.
Do you see hope for change in mainstream chemistry to become more green? Do you think change is likely to come from academia, regulatory or public pressure? Will less harmful practices have to wait until they are economically superior to conventional processes? Is there a role for science educators in redirecting public distrust of “chemicals” towards specific risks? Is there any hope for greening a way of life that’s still too cheap to phase out lead acid batteries?
Robin D. Rogers: I have my own philosophy here and it involves personal responsibility. I am a chemist and I believe it is my job to make life better. I have chosen to do this in a way that would help Society become sustainable. Am I disappointed in the pace of change? Yes. Do I believe change is impossible? No. However, right now it is hard as any new alternative technology we need must not be environmentally damaging, must be societally acceptable, and (yes this is a big one) must make money. So when you now start factoring in environmental integrity with social and economic justice, with making money, it’s a new ballgame. And oh by the way, you must compete at the same price point as oil based chemicals and plastics.
Not a winning combination… unless, you are inventive.
I believe real change will be a partnership of Society and its governments and researchers.
For a sample on my philosophy about renewable plastics and chemicals check out Rogers, R. D. “Eliminating the Need for Chemistry,” Chemical & Engineering News, December 7/14, 2015, pp 42-43.
/u/Cognitive_Ecologist: What are some industries or technologies that probably need your green revolution to happen and why? Meaning, where is the low hanging fruit that absolutely requires our attention?
Robin D. Rogers: The one we hear about today in a growing Societal voice would be plastics derived from oil. Of course, it’s one of the hardest to replace because of how cheap plastics are and how far we have come in our ability to find inventive uses for them. The low hanging fruit I am going after will be very high value polymers such as chitin (or its derivative chitosan) in medical devices. We use an Ionic Liquid process to extract chitin directly from shrimp shells. If we can get a high value polymer it will more than cover the cost of the extraction. However, this same extraction can also pull biopolymers out of trees, grasses, hair, etc. Applications of those need our process to be cheaper, so as we make it better and cheaper for specialty polymers from Nature, we will reach a price point where all of a sudden the other polymers and uses will become more financially attractive.
Stay tuned for another ACS Publicatons AMA on Tuesday, October 4 with ACS Central Science authors Matthew Todd and Alice Williamson of the Open Source Malaria Consortium. For a full archive of ACS AMAs and a preview of upcoming sessions, click here.