Green chemistry takes root

Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY, reports:

A new kind of chemical revolution is brewing, 150 years after the first one transformed modern life with a host of conveniences. This 21st-century revolution — called green chemistry — is a reaction to the environmental and economic costs that often are the dark underbelly of such a transformation.

The fundamental idea of green chemistry is that the designer of a chemical is responsible for considering what will happen to the world after the agent is put in place, says John Warner of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

But by rethinking chemical design from the ground up, green chemists at universities and in private industry are developing new ways to manufacture products that fuel our economy and lifestyles, without the damages that have become all too evident in recent years.

In fact, green chemistry has gone from blackboard conjecture to a multimillion-dollar business in the past 15 years. "Chemical manufacturers are understanding that part of their costs — and therefore subtractions from their bottom line — are waste and environmental disposal," says Mary Ellen Weber of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The stakes are high indeed. Cleaning up chemical messes is growing ever more costly. This fall, the DuPont company agreed to pay up to $600 million in fines and settlement costs over environmental damage caused by production of Teflon and Gore-Tex. General Electric will spend years and tens of millions of dollars to clean up PCBs it discharged into the Hudson River. Other companies face costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up dioxins, perchlorate, mercury and asbestos.

But keeping the planet safe doesn’t have to mean giving up non-stick pans and Gore-Tex. Typically the non-stick coating Teflon is manufactured in water, requiring a particularly nasty chemical called PFOA. But by re-thinking the fundamental way that the molecules making up Teflon are put together, Joseph DeSimone and his colleagues at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill instead found a way to do it in carbon dioxide, the stuff you’d find in tanks at McDonald’s to put the fizz in soda.

Carbon dioxide, it turns out, works so much better as a manufacturing medium for Teflon that no PFOA is required. DuPont has invested $275 million in a plant in North Carolina that makes one form of Teflon using this PFOA-free method, possibly saving a fortune in long-term cleanup

Link: USATODAY.com – Green chemistry takes root.

via Alex Steffen