It’s not easy being green — especially not if you’re producing a drug.
But professor of chemistry Robert Crabtree is on a mission to change just that. Earlier this month, he was awarded a grant by the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute Pharmaceutical Roundtable for $160,000 to develop more environmentally friendly methods of producing drugs. Crabtree’s proposal, which will fund both his personal research projects and those of many of his graduate students, was the only one chosen among the 48 in contention to receive funding this year.
“This latest accomplishment by Professor Crabtree is just a reflection of why he is so well-respected by his scientific peers and considered an inspiration by his students,” said Paul Anastas, professor of chemistry and director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale, who is widely hailed as the father of green chemistry. “Rather than simply doing brilliant research, he’s doing it in a way that the companies will be able to immediately incorporate it … on a quick timetable,” he added.
Researchers’ understanding of chemistry has just reached the level of complexity necessary to make green production options available, Crabtree said. As a result, they are just beginning to discover “new transformations,” Crabtree said.
Traditionally, pharmaceutical companies have created catalysts — chemicals that speed up reactions — from materials such as platinum, iridium and chlorine, which can seep into the environment and cause damage. Crabtree developed reaction pathways that use catalysts created from iron, copper, cobalt and other metals less harmful to the environment. (He refused to comment on the specific nature of his innovations — calling them “trade secrets.”)
The two ways to make the process of drug production less environmentally taxing are to reduce waste output and to minimize the use of harmful chemicals — with the most effective strategies targeting both avenues, he said.
Crabtree’s work is a key step forward for the fledgling green chemistry movement — a cooperative partnership between academic researchers and chemical companies to diminish the industry’s harmful effects on the environment, Anastas said.
“People have no idea what’s in the cosmetics they’re putting on their faces, the products they’re washing with, the clothes they’re putting on their bodies,” Anastas said. “Robert Crabtree is blending the brilliance, creativity and elegance of chemistry and catalysis with the goals of ensuring that our chemistry is good for the environment and the humans who encounter it.”
The Roundtable — co-founded by Anastas and Berkeley Cue, former vice president of Pfizer, Inc., in 2005 — brings together industry executives and scientific researchers, serving to link innovation and the practical implementation of new developments.
Innovations such as Crabtree’s may soon be applied to the production processes of other industries, such as those that manufacture dyes, carpeting and electronics, he added.
For his part, Crabtree is already looking ahead to a time — one his own research is helping to bring about — when green chemistry will be the rule rather than the exception.
“In a few decades it won’t be special anymore,” he said. “Everyone will be doing green chemistry.”