Since last fall, the University of Massachusetts, Boston (UMB), has been accepting students into a new program called the green chemistry Ph.D. track. It is offered by the department of environmental sciences but administered by the department of chemistry.
The first of its kind in the world, the program is the brainchild of its director, UMB chemistry professor John C. Warner. Students in the program, he explains, will be trained much like other Ph.D. chemistry students, although their education will emphasize skills to design materials and processes that have minimal impact on human health and the environment. Areas of concentration include environmentally benign synthesis, environmental monitoring and detection, biodegradation, and bioremediation.
INCUBATOR The University of Massachusetts, Boston, houses the first Ph.D. program in green chemistry. PHOTO BY RON SHERMAN
What makes the program different from anything else available so far, Warner says, is the requirement of courses in toxicology, environmental law and policy, environmental fate and transport, and industrial chemistry. Through these courses, he explains, "we broaden the students' understanding of environmental realities--such as what makes a molecule toxic, what laws have been established to govern synthetic procedures, and what happens in the environment--which conventional chemistry programs don't teach."
Terrence J. Collins, a chemistry professor at Carnegie Mellon University, notes that "we do not live in a sustainable civilization, sustainability meaning that what we do every day can be carried on to the indefinite future without causing damage." Collins was a recipient of the 1999 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Academic Award. The UMB program, he tells C&EN, is one way to call attention to the fact that "a sustainable civilization needs the intimate engagement of chemistry."
The UMB program "is timely, as there has been a distinct shift in focus in chemistry," says Janet Scott, deputy director of the Centre for Green Chemistry at Monash University, in Australia. "Even those who might not consider themselves 'green chemists' are beginning to focus on issues of sustainability and the design of benign products and processes to prevent pollution at the source. The chemical industry is beginning to demand a wider knowledge of and attention to issues of sustainability."
Mary Kirchhoff, assistant director of the Green Chemistry Institute, in Washington, D.C., agrees that the time is right for a green chemistry Ph.D. program. It might have been met with skepticism 10 years ago, when the term "green chemistry" first surfaced, she tells C&EN. Warner is the ideal person to lead such a program, she adds. "He's got the research credentials, the teaching credentials, the commitment to students, and the passion."
Particularly in organic synthesis, formal green chemistry training will force chemists to change how they think.
"One of the things that makes organic synthesis so exciting is that, if you draw a molecule, there are probably an infinite number of synthetic pathways that you can follow to make that molecule," Warner says. Traditionally, the focus has been on maximizing yields and stereoselectivities. Considerations of environmental and toxicological impact rarely come into play.
"IF ONE STEP in a synthetic sequence requires a hazardous reagent that's regulated by the federal government, that sequence could be more expensive than an alternative route that might give less yield," Warner explains. Regulatory and environmental realities often decide the economic viability of a synthetic route, he adds.
Chemists usually learn of such considerations when they're working for a company, Warner says. "Industry would like people to come in with some understanding of these issues, because there's economic benefit if processes designed in labs do not have to be reworked to satisfy regulatory requirements."
A green chemistry Ph.D. would be a big plus for chemists interested in process development, notes Berkeley Cue, vice president of pharmaceutical sciences at Pfizer Global Research & Development, Groton, Conn. "What we try to incorporate into the design of manufacturing processes--such as safety, efficient use of raw materials, minimal use of solvents, and online analysis--are aligned to the concepts that Warner and people like him are teaching," he explains. "We just didn't call it green chemistry. We called it process development."
Amy Cannon is the first student enrolled in UMB's green chemistry Ph.D. program. She's working on constructing solar energy devices in a more environmentally benign manner. Currently, she explains, producing solar cells consumes so much energy that a solar panel has to operate for years before it generates as much energy as was used to make it.
"Alternative energy is one of the most important areas in terms of sustainability," Cannon tells C&EN. Having just completed her master's degree under Warner's guidance, Cannon is passionate about green chemistry. "What could be better than this," she asks, "given that my big goal in life is to help save the world by doing what I can where I am?"
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