Green issues spark chain reaction

With the industry’s environmental credentials at stake, the race is on to develop alternative products and processes to cut pollution and reduce health risks.

Two new research initiatives are aiming to improve the environmental performance of the chemical industry, a sector which has come in for its share of criticism over the years.

Last month Crystal, a new Faraday Partnership funded by the DTI and the research councils for the promotion of green chemical technology, was launched by minister for science, Lord Sainsbury. Partners in the endeavour include the Institution of Chemical Engineers, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Chemical Industries Association. Its aims are to link industry with the UK’s chemical science and technology base to provide five sustainable manufacturing technologies within five years.

Meanwhile, the Green Chemical Network, comprising researchers at three universities, has been set up to encourage research and spreading best practice among chemical industry manufacturers.

But what is green chemistry? The aim, according to the GCN, is the design, manufacture and use of environmentally benign chemical products and processes that prevent pollution and reduce environmental and human health risks. And with studies showing that 40% of the cost of producing speciality chemicals is generated by waste and its disposal, there are great opportunities to cut costs at every stage of a chemical process.

Higher profile

The idea originated in the US. Professor James Clark, head of chemistry at York University, saw the US Environmental Protection Agency giving green chemistry a very high profile and could see no reason why it could not be replicated here. He is now director of the Green Chemistry Network, based at York’s chemistry department.’I had the idea in 1998 following a visit to the US. I thought we could do something similar,’ he said. He approached the Royal Society for Chemistry which endorsed his aim of promoting technology transfer and providing data to show that best practice provided benefits. It agreed to provide core funding for five years from 1998.

John Brophy, scientific affairs manager at the RSC, said that at about the time of Clark’s approach the society felt there was growing pressure from government, the public and industry regarding sustainable development. As chemistry plays such an important role in industrial processes the RSC was coming to the view that chemistry could play its part.

‘The main barrier is a lack of awareness in schools, universities and industry. Too many managers view alternative chemistry as a cost and not an opportunity’, said Brophy.

The GCN includes York, Newcastle and Glasgow universities. Their research includes clean synthesis, new materials based on renewable sources, chemically modified materials, and the use of more efficient processes such as spinning disc reactors and micro reactors. All have applications in fine chemicals, polymers, food, medical, pharmaceuticals, energy and other industries.

The GCN is also using its award scheme to encourage research and highlight case studies of green chemistry. There are three awards: the Jerwood Salters environment award, the industrial award and the SME industrial award.

Last year the SME award was won by Preston firm Industrial Copolymers for the development of a solvent replacement chemical for car paint. The project was led by R&D manager Dr Neil Carter, and the team included an MA from the University of Central Lancashire.

Normally, car paint uses a carbon-based solvent which, after being sprayed on the vehicle, evaporates over many years, contributing to climate change. The replacement chemical is absorbed fully by the paint and does not release any gas.Dye company Dystar won the industrial award by changing its colouration process for cotton to reduce energy input and raw material input as well as a reduction in waste.

Theory into practice

The environment award, for academics collaborating with industry, was won by Dr Christopher Braddock of Imperial College’s chemistry department. He redesigned an industrial process for the production of a basic feedstock chemical used for a wide range of products, from perfume to explosives. The redesign avoids the production of harsh acid by-products and produces only water instead.

Dr Amit Khandelwal, head of research for the Chemical Industries Association, said the sharing of best practice among CIA members is an important issue. ‘GCN can show that green chemistry is accessible at reduced costs and that the burden is not on spending to get green.’

In 18 months’ time the RSC will decide if the GCN has justified the funding. The outlook is good. Brophy thinks the network is achieving many of its aims. But Clark has loftier goals. He expects major developments for industry and society itself.

He said: ‘we want to aim for renewable feedstocks, made from biomass – waste crop material being used to produce chemicals. It would come from the agricultural businesses’ leftovers, and then what remains from chemical production could be burnt for power.’

Industrial Copolymers’ Carter went further: ‘Chemists have spent the past 100 years damaging the environment and I think it is the future of chemists to unravel that.’