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Can tech make chemistry greener?

Green chemistry programs have prevented hundreds of millions of tons of hazardous materials from entering the environment, says EPA official.

BOSTON--To many people, the term "green chemistry" is either a contradiction or a fancy name for long-held sensible chemistry practices.

All chemical products won't become benign overnight but they can get greener, even taking small steps, said Rich Engler, the program manager for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Green Chemistry Program.

Engler gave an overview of green chemistry at the CTSI Clean Technology conference here on Monday, where he said that most of what qualifies as green chemistry is focused on reducing the amount of hazards that chemicals introduce.

The impact of the green chemistry movement is substantial: The winners of last year's EPA Green Chemistry award program have prevented 200 million pounds per year of hazardous substances, he said. Since the program started, over 1 billion pounds of hazardous substances have been kept out of the environment.

"We recognize that there is an incremental nature to green chemistry. You can't take a year or two and make the chemistry industry completely benign. It's really a question of what is greener," he said.

Venture capitalists, including famed investor Vinod Khosla, have made green chemistry one their investment themes. In many case, green chemistry companies make better materials, such as Hycrete which makes a water-resistant concrete that is more durable.

Engler said that investing in new innovations costs chemical companies more. But there are a number of financial benefits, including cheaper and recyclable raw materials and less regulatory burden.

A company called Battelle, for example, developed a binding agent for printer cartridges that is made from glycerin, a by-product of biodiesel production. The process means that it has a cheap feedstock and lowers the energy production needed to make the toner binder.

In another case, Columbia Forest Products has started using a wood adhesive that uses a protein found in ocean mussels. The company uses soy flour rather than formaldehyde to make its adhesive.

In general, the focus of most green chemistry techniques is choosing renewable feedstocks that obviate the need for hazardous compounds, Engler said.

"Green chemistry is pollution prevention at the molecular level," he said.