Chemistry professor Paul Anastas, the director for the Center for Green Chemistry & Green Engineering at Yale, was awarded the Natural Products Association’s Rachel Carson Environmental Award for his contributions toward the environment March 22. Currently on public service leave with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Anastas is widely known as the “father of green chemistry” for his 12 principles of green chemistry published in 1998. The News spoke to Anastas Tuesday morning about his lifetime achievements and his views on environmentally friendly science.
Q You are dubbed the “father of green chemistry.” What opportunities for environmentally-friendly chemistry did you see that others did not?
A When I was becoming a chemist and doing my first research, I recognized that we were able to do better. We were doing elegant chemistry, making new molecules and synthesizing them in tremendously creative ways, but as a scientific community, we were achieving these goals while causing problems for human health and the environment. One of the things that I was acutely aware of is that we could continue with all of our creativity, invention and discovery, but do it in a way that didn’t harm people.
The techniques, the principles of green chemistry are a way of designing your chemistry, designing molecules and materials so that they’re not going to be harmful to people, depleting of the environment, and degrading of our ecosystems.
Q You endorse a bottom-up solution to industrial processes based on “bad” chemistry. What are the costs involved in redesigning a product’s entire life cycle and how do you persuade businesses to make that commitment?
A Invention and discovery and innovation are happening everyday. When we talk about how much it costs to invent a green molecule, honestly, it doesn’t cost any more than it costs to invent a brown molecule. What it is is a change in perspective, a change in understanding, a change in insight. Thinking about problems in different ways allows us to continue the same types of innovation that we’ve always had, but do it in a way that is more sustainable, and better for humans and the environment. There shouldn’t be anything more costly about inventions with an environmentally friendly perspective.
Q You have been successful implementing green chemistry in the pharmaceutical industry. Can you explain the “E-factor” and how that relates to production costs?
A The E-factor is a calculation of a concept called atom economy. Atom economy means that all of the atoms that go into the production scheme winds up going into the product rather than into the waste; that would be a 100 percent E-factor. Currently, the vast majority of manufacturing processes, as a feedstock, ends up going into the waste train. By increasing the E-factor, you are having greater efficiency, coming down on waste. That’s something that the pharmaceutical industry has a tremendous interest in, has made great strides in, and by pursuing that, has made many processes in the pharmaceutical industry both greener, cleaner, and more profitable.
Q As a branch of science rather than politics, is green chemistry a fundamental deconstruction of the old approach or is it a branch of applied chemistry?
A Green chemistry is science. Green chemistry is not policy. You may be able to put policies in place to advance green chemistry, in the same way you put policies in place to advance biotech, or nanotech, but just like those other fields, green chemistry is the science of molecular design and synthetic design. It’s basically looking at taking all of the power and potential expertise and creativity of traditional chemistry and looking at it a new perspective.
Q Some of your most recent research has focused on a chemical called chitosan. What did your studies find?
A Chitosan is one of the most plentiful materials made in the world. It’s found in natural systems, shellfish, and insect shells. It’s naturally occurring, readily available, and harmless to people animals in the environment.
Using that material as a basis for products that are used by society, especially products that wind up in the environment, is a tremendously important strategy for making sure that while you’re trying to accomplish one goal, such as perhaps packaging or water purification, or whatever it is, that you’re not inadvertently causing problems in other ways for waste or persistence.