Giving green chemistry a hand

Irish Research Council selected Ross Driver (NUIM), Valerie Gerard (TCD), Daniele Lo Re (NUIG), and Tandra Ghoshal (UCC) gear up for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Chemistry.

Sustainability is not just another buzzword for the research chemists of today. Indeed many make an effort to conduct their work with the desire in mind to make a contribution towards sustainable development. ‘‘It’s so incredibly important that we chemists in particular take more responsibility for the environment,’’ stresses Melanie Mastronardi, a Canadian doctoral student from the University of Toronto. ‘‘That’s why I try to raise awareness for green chemistry technologies and methods, and endeavour to live up to this ideal in my own research.’’

Mastronardi is one of more than 600 young scientists from almost 80 countries who will be taking part in the 63rd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting the first week of July. They will have the unique opportunity to exchange knowledge and ideas with 35 Nobel Laureates. The concept of ‘‘Green Chemistry’’ is one of the focal points on the meeting’s agenda. Biochemical processes and structures, as well as the generation, conversion and storage of chemical energy, will also be the subject of numerous speeches and discussions.

In the early 1990s, American chemists Paul Anastas and John C. Warner began formulating a concept of ‘‘Green Chemistry’’. The twelve principles of their concept are geared toward making chemical production as resource-sparing, energy-efficient and environmentally-compatible as possible. The aim is to avoid harmful raw materials and end products, to reduce waste and to minimise accident risks. The use of catalysts is of immense importance here. They effectively hasten chemical reactions that would otherwise take much too long: reactions are accelerated and less energy is needed. That’s why chemistry is all but inconceivable without catalysts in the modern era.

An oil industry discovery in the 1950s is what opened the door to environmentally friendly chemistry. During the process of steam cracking, researchers found it was possible, under certain conditions, to convert an unsaturated hydrocarbon, an alkene also known as an olefin, with a methyl group (propylene) into two other alkenes, one with two methyl groups and one with none. But it wasn’t until 1970 that French chemist Yves Chauvin was able to explain this phenomenon using the effect of a metallic catalyst. The latter caused the molecules to bind with each other temporarily so that they could exchange methyl groups. Chauvin received the 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his detailed description of olefin metathesis along with Americans Robert Grubbs and Richard Schrock. In 1990 and 1992, they presented a number of particularly effective catalysts for metathesis and were instrumental in furthering the development of more efficient and environmentally friendly methods of synthesis for applications, such as pharmaceuticals and plastics.

In his speech on ‘‘Green Chemistry and Catalysis’’ at the 63rd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, Robert Grubbs will highlight the significance of catalysts for the transition to a bio-based economy. One of the keys, for him, lies in developing carbon sources from renewable resources, with the help of metathesis, for use in industrial processing. This chemical method enables certain plant components to be split into saturated and unsaturated hydrocarbons. The former finds application as fuels of various kinds and the latter can be used as staples for the organic synthesis of materials such as plastics. However, the process is only sustainable if the raw materials it employs are not harvested in a way that competes with food production; in other words they must come from the non-edible parts of plants. Bio refineries, for example, should one day be capable of recycling wood chips or straw for both energy and material on an industrial scale.

A panel discussion to close this year’s Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting will see experts debating the prospects for the concept of green chemistry. Participants will include Chemistry Nobel Laureate Mario Molina from Mexico and Physics Nobel Laureate Steven Chu from the USA. Molina was awarded the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry together with Dutchman Paul Crutzen and American Frank Sherwood Rowland, for research on the ozone layer. Chu served as Energy Secretary in US President Barack Obama’s first administration. The two men will be joined by German chemist Michael Braungart, who co-developed the ‘‘cradle-to-cradle’’ concept of the environmentally friendly resource cycle. The discussion will take place on Mainau Island in Lake Constance, the very place where the ‘‘Green Charter of Mainau’’ was signed in 1961. This was one of the very first sustainability initiatives and came about at the instigation of Count Lennart Bernadotte, co-founder of the Lindau Meetings. The concept of sustainability has taken on increasing significance at the Lindau Meetings themselves, as debates on the influence and the responsibility of the scientific community extend beyond the circle of meeting participants and into society at large.