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Green chemistry's 'race to innovation'

As with green-tech movement, the eco-spin on chemical science isn't just for tree huggers. Businesses, too, are betting on better materials.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
5 min read
A correction was made to this story.

Just a few steps behind green tech, green chemistry is the latest movement that's both a source of technology innovation and a rallying cry for environmentalists.

Green chemistry calls for designing chemicals to be environmentally benign and commercially viable. But its reach goes far beyond reducing toxins in drugs or children's toys, the latest being the recall of the Aqua Dots toy on Wednesday.

Experts say the principles of green chemistry, such as reducing waste and making materials safer, can affect everything from climate change to the global supply of food and water. And big problems often translate into big business opportunities.

That's why start-ups are increasingly relying on advanced materials to get an edge in biofuels, bioplastics, green building materials, or environmentally friendly home products. For large pharmaceutical and chemical companies, green chemistry is a way to reduce industrial waste and avoid regulatory headaches.

"No matter what industry you're in, you can integrate green chemistry into your operations," says Paul Anastas, a pioneer in the field of green chemistry and professor at Yale University's Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering. "We want to create a race to the top, a race to innovation," he said.

Anastas and other leaders in the field organized the Green Chemistry Business Summit held recently in Haverhill, Mass., where speakers argued that the field is a nascent but promising field for technology investment.

Paul Anastas
Paul Anastas

Although the term "green chemistry" is still esoteric, the negative effects of traditional chemistry practices are becoming front-page news, in much the way that global warming and environmental problems have.

This year saw several recalls of toys with harmful chemicals. A number of deaths were linked to the use of diethylene glycol, an antifreeze used as a cheap replacement for glycerin in cough syrups and toothpastes. California passed a law restricting the use of potentially harmful chemicals, including phthalates, in everyday items like shampoo and nail polish.

The root of these chemical hazards is that the people who design the compounds in everyday products are not adequately aware of toxicity, said , director for the Center for Green Chemistry at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and chief technology officer of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry.

And as new chemicals come onto the market, including materials made with , there isn't enough understanding about the associated risks of individual chemicals, or how they react with others.

"Right now, the synthetic chemicals made since the end of World War II are bio-accumulating in the biosphere and we don't know the risks of those chemicals even on a one-by-one basis," said Anastas.

VCs get chemistry 2.0 bug
Rather than dwell on the harm of toxic chemicals or call for more stringent regulations, speakers at the Green Chemistry Business Summit--and green-chemistry investors--have a decidedly upbeat spin.

Innovation around materials is integral to the investment parameters of Rockport Capital Parters, said Daniel Hullah, an associate at the venture capital firm. That focus on materials touches biofuels, building materials, battery technologies, and power electronics.

Green-chem companies Rockport has already funded include: EcoSmart Technologies, which makes a naturally derived pesticide, and Advanced Electron Beams, which has developed a way to clean bottles in factories without chemicals and using far less energy.

This isn't some kind of noble wish. It's not about being nice to the birds and the bunnies. This is a design protocol.
--Paul Anastas, professor of green chemistry, Yale

"The markets for chemicals--both specialty and commodity chemicals--are huge," said Hullah.

High-profile venture capitalist said on Tuesday that he has already made a number of investments in start-ups inventing advanced materials for water filtration, bioplastics, and building materials, not including his substantial bets in biofuels.

One of the drivers behind green chemistry is growing consumer interest in environmentally friendly products. Another theme is using materials to make industry more energy-efficient, and potentially more cost-effective, as in the case of water purification, Khosla said.

Anastas said smart chemistry will allow for biofuels that don't threaten the food supply and that produce less greenhouse gas than fossil fuels. Although biofuels come from renewable plants, studies have shown that production of corn-based ethanol, for instance, can be nearly as polluting as gasoline.

Closely watched start-ups like Amyris Biotechnologies and Codexis, which won the Environmental Protection Agency's Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge award, are using chemical engineering to optimize the attributes of biofuels.

Entrepreneurs are cashing in on the growing interest in greener materials. Serious Materials, a company which has come up with a more energy-efficient formula for making drywall, earlier this month raised $50 million to ramp up its manufacturing.

On Wednesday, start-up Novomer announced that it raised $6.6 million to commercialize a chemical process that uses carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide as a feedstock to make biodegradable plastics.

That flow of money--part of a larger green-tech investment boom--is a far cry from a few years ago when venture capitalists weren't receptive to company pitches based on green materials, said David Rosenberg, the CEO of Hycrete. That company has developed an additive that makes concrete water resistant.

"It's amazing how fast this tidal wave has come. We went from being this quirky concrete company to all of a sudden this cool, chic clean-tech company," said Rosenberg, who successfully raised money last year.

Hycrete's additive has very low toxicity and no volatile organic compounds, which are notorious indoor air pollutants. But Rosenberg said that most of the company's sales are due to the product's performance--being water resistant--rather than for its "green" attributes.

The business case for green chemistry could exclude the issue of being environmentally benign, and still be successful. Chemical processes that reduce waste translate into huge savings, said Berkeley Cue, Jr., who started the green-chemistry initiative at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.

Cue calculates that the pharmaceutical industry--under constant pressure to invest research and development in blockbuster drugs--could save $10 billion and eliminate 4 billion kilos of waste a year. "Companies that figure out how to do it will be at a competitive advantage," he said.

Meeting a growing number of regulations is also very expensive. The electronics industry, which uses a huge amount of water and fossil fuels in production, is now facing a new wave of controls with the Restriction on Hazardous Substances Directive and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive.

Green chemistry practices haven't fully taken hold in industry because most companies still focus on complying with regulations after a product's been released, rather than designing environmentally benign and less wasteful products from the start, Cue said.

A change in business practices and more education will both be necessary to get results that appeal to businesses and consumers alike.

"This isn't some kind of noble wish. It's not about being nice to the birds and the bunnies. This is a design protocol," said Anastas.


Correction: This article incorrectly stated the product that Serious Materials works with. The company has created a more energy-efficient formula for making drywall.