Making it easier to be green

09/05/2006
By From the Boston Globe

By Robert Gavin, Globe Staff  

LOWELL -- Someone pitches a laptop computer, and what happens to the plastic casing? Chances are it ends up in a landfill, adding to the toxic swill.

But what if the plastic was made from natural, biodegradable compounds? And what if, by introducing an enzyme, the plastic could be reverse-engineered back to raw material, so a new laptop casing could be molded from scratch?

The process would produce less waste and less pollution. It would use less energy. And it would reduce the need for petroleum, the basic ingredient of modern plastics.

This is the type of research professor John Warner and his colleagues and students are undertaking at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, which, with an unusual doctoral-level program and research center, is in the vanguard of a growing movement known as green chemistry.

Green chemistry aims to replace toxic chemicals with environmentally benign substances while devising processes that reduce waste, pollution, and energy consumption.

Taking root more than a decade ago, green chemistry is today attracting increasing interest and investment as energy prices soar. The production of chemicals, plastics, and other nonfuel petroleum products consumes 1 million barrels of oil a day, so firms from an array of industries are seeking alternatives to petroleum-based products and wasteful, energy-consuming processes.

``If this country doesn't figure out energy, nothing else will matter," said Ken Doxsee, program officer for organic chemistry at the National Science Foundation. ``Green chemistry is all about sustainability, and it definitely has a role to play."

UMass-Lowell is poised to play a large part.

Warner, a Massachusetts native and onetime industrial chemist at Polaroid Corp., is considered among the founders of the green chemistry movement. The university also boasts one of the only doctoral-level green chemistry programs, which is attracting promising young scientists from around the nation.

Along with the green chemistry research center that Warner directs, it could provide Massachusetts with another competitive advantage.

For example, Sappi, Ltd., a South African forest products company with North American headquarters in Boston, has invested $110,000 so far to underwrite green chemistry research at UMass-Lowell. Sappi wants to develop environmentally benign products from substances found in trees.

One such substance is lignin, a gooey chemical compound typically burned as waste in pulp and paper making. UMass and Sappi researchers are investigating ways to use lignin to make resins, coatings, and the binders in glue, all of which are currently made from petroleum or natural gas.

Another Sappi and UMass-Lowell collaboration is investigating methods to make solar cells with paper -- and dramatically lower the cost of solar energy. The challenge: developing a chemical process to convert light to electricity at low temperatures so the paper won't burn.

``We needed to go beyond our traditional sources of innovation to engineer the next generation of products," said Dan Coughlin, product development leader at Sappi's research center in Westbrook, Maine. ``So, why not build in the green aspect from the very beginning?"

Green chemistry emerged in the early 1990s, following the enactment of the 1990 Pollution Prevention Act. The law sought to stop pollution at its source .

In 1995, to encourage efforts to adopt environmentally sensitive products and processes, the Environmental Protection Agency launched the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge, to recognize firms leading the way. In 1998, Warner and Paul Anastas, director of the Green Chemistry Institute of the American Chemical Society, published the ``12 principles of green chemistry."

This manifesto detailed the ethic s of green chemistry: considering the long-term environmental impact of chemicals and materials before creating them. For example, said Warner, it doesn't make sense to develop a plastic substitute if it requires more energy to make than the plastic it's replacing.

``The challenge for green chemistry, " Warner said, ``is how do we change the thinking?"

The opportunity to save money seems to be one way. While there are no comprehensive figures available, the EPA estimates companies participating in the presidential green chemistry challenge since 1995 have probably saved hundreds of millions of dollars in material, waste, and cleanup costs. Together, these companies have eliminated 9 billion pounds of hazardous waste and saved 50 billion gallons of water per year, the EPA said. They've also cut hundreds of millions of pounds of greenhouse gases.

Pfizer Inc., for example, a 2002 presidential award winner, consulted with Warner. Using his green chemistry principles, Pfizer revamped the process used in manufacturing sertraline, the active ingredient in the antidepressant Zoloft. The pharmaceutical giant cut solvents used in the process by 90 percent, while eliminating hundreds of metric tons of other hazardous materials, such as hydrochloric acid.

Pfizer won't disclose its savings. But, said Berkeley ``Buzz" Cue, a retired Pfizer research executive who led this green chemistry effort, ``The savings were significant enough to go to the FDA to get approval for the redesigned process."

Such successes are just the beginning for green chemistry, Warner said. Right now, green chemistry's effect is limited by existing manufacturing equipment, plants, and processes. But as nanotechnology, the emerging field that makes devices and structures about one-thousandth the width of a human hair, requires new manufacturing methods, it creates the chance put green chemistry practices and ethics in place as those methods are created.

``We've come to an interesting point in our history," Warner said. ``We can design our products to minimize the environmental footprint they leave."