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From blue collar to green chemistry

First up, says professor John Warner, is recognizing the toxic side effects of the tech boom. Then design flaws can be fixed accordingly.

Material science and chemistry are at the root of engineering innovations from semiconductors to nanotechnology.

Yet even as technologists design new materials, little is understood about the potentially harmful effects of these inventions on people and the environment.

John Warner is out to change that.

Warner is director of the Center for Green Chemistry at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. He also recently co-founded the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, where he is chief technology officer.

He is one of a growing number of academics and professional chemists promoting environmentally benign approaches to chemistry and materials development.

Formulating safer substances is within grasp, Warner argues. But toxicology isn't sufficiently considered during the design stage. And there's a large gap in the knowledge needed to make environmentally benign goods.

Warner spoke at last week's Ideas Boston conference, where he described his life journey and current mission. Coming from a working-class family outside Boston, he got into graduate work in chemistry by chance. Once an employee at Polaroid, he discovered how little he or his fellow chemists known about toxicity.

After his talk, Warner spoke with CNET

Q: What is green chemistry and why do we need it?
Warner: Green chemistry is just a correction of the fact that right now in our education of chemistry and materials science, we don't teach toxicology or (chemistry) as a mechanism for environmental harm. So as society demands technology, the problem is that the people who are inventing it are unaware of the mechanisms that cause toxicity and environmental harm. If you can put in their hands the tools to understand that, then they may invent new products and processes that...look at toxicity and environmental harm as a design flaw. So green chemistry, succinctly, is making materials in an environmentally responsible way, and the technology required to do that.

Our knowledge of toxicology is a moving target. What we knew 10 years ago, what we know now is changing.

You said that you were not trained in toxicity and no chemists are trained in that. How can that be?
Warner: Unless you are a toxicologist, (in which case) of course you are. If you are a chemist who is destined to work at the DuPonts and Dows, our curriculum is so jam-packed with things that we have to learn that we can't fit (it in)--or there is not enough of a present awareness of the importance of it.

If you go online at any university in the country, go to the chemistry department and look at what's required; you show me one chemistry department where someone who has graduated with a degree in chemistry is required to take anything like toxicology or environmental harm. You won't find one. Unless your major is toxicology or environmental sciences. Whereas if you are going to be in the job of monitoring, measuring, characterizing (toxics) after (chemicals have) already been created, then you have to take a ton of classes. But the ones who are doing the creating aren't being educated.

As a parent, I've read about plastics used in baby bottles (that may be harmful) and arsenic in the lumber to build playgrounds. Do we have a good idea of how bad the dangers are?
Warner: That's a very scary thing--that our knowledge of toxicology is a moving target. What we knew 10 years ago, what we know now is changing. The people who invented chlorofluorocarbons were heroes. Every week there would be a disaster: an ammonia explosion from a refrigerator plant--people were dying. Society mandated replacement for ammonia. Chlorofluorocarbons were invented at that time and they were thought of as wonderful, benign and safe things. Years later, we found out that they were ozone-depleting. It wasn't a bad invention--they just didn't know.

The reason is perhaps that a chemist kind of works in isolation. Do you ever see a history major or psychology major sitting down with a group of chemists and saying, "Hey, what are you doing?" The next question is: why shouldn't they?

There is a profound impact...when you invent a material. Why is it that in our society we completely disassociate people who do science and those who don't? What we need to do is get more people to realize that they can participate--their eyes, their ears, their ideas are just as valid to help in that process to say, "Wait a minute. Why are you using that material? Did you know over here somebody actually did find out that it has some toxicological concerns?" Right now, the only way those things happen is by accident during the design process or by identifying the horrors sometime later.

Let's put it as upfront as possible. We're not going to solve all the problems--we're still going to fail, we're still going to screw up, some dangerous things are going to slip through. But right now, there's no chance of stopping them. Someday in the future, we will be better at this. But we have to at least make a decision to go in that direction today.

What's the resistance? I'm sure chemical companies view regulations as a problem.
Warner: Absolutely. Chemical companies actually have embraced this for the most part. You see companies that have vice presidents of green chemistry. They would love to embrace it but the people haven't been trained. So you find them sponsoring workshops, bringing training to employees. Of course they would rather see academia start requiring courses. But changing academia is one of the most difficult things to do.

Some environmentalists say that after global warming the next big environmental concern is toxics within our own bodies. What's your feeling?
Warner: It's terrifying. Obviously my personal history (Warner lost an infant son to a birth defect, and a rock band mate in his twenties to leukemia), I have some questions about how all that pulls together. The new learning about environmental hormones and endocrine disruptors is scary as hell. I'm not in a position to know how much of that is valid, how much of that is not valid. Certainly some of it is valid and if some of it is valid, that's scary as hell.

If chemistry was more interdisciplinary and there was a diversity of the eyes, ears and ideas in the process, we'd be much better at what we're doing.

We have carcinogens. Just look at the rates of childhood asthma and things like that. Now there are links to certain psychological illnesses. Things are happening out there that we need to learn about. But rather than look at it and panic and say, "Oh my God we must stop, stop, stop," I choose to look at it and say, "Let's get a factor of 10 more chemists onboard and get more people inventing safer things." And be proactive about changing the future.

How hard is this, even if you took into account design principles as you were talking about earlier?
Warner: I'm talking into this recorder here. Imagine all the inventions that went into doing this. All the different things--you got the LED light shining, the recording mechanisms, miniaturization of the electronics. Adding "let's make it nontoxic," although it's huge, is no larger of a problem than anything else. It's just that we haven't focused on it. It's always been abdicated to somebody else to do it. The inventors invent and the toxicologist comes in after the fact.

What I'm saying is: Look at that as a design flaw. You want this to work, you want the LED light, you want a clear recording. You also want the components to be nontoxic. And there is going to be a day in the future when that's going to be an acceptable requirement. But right now we don't have the building blocks to get there.

Is this an interdisciplinary problem?
Warner: Absolutely. The whole thing, in my opinion, is that if chemistry was more interdisciplinary and there was a diversity of the eyes, ears and ideas in the process, we'd be much better at what we're doing. The problem is that we're not. The academic structure is such that there is chemistry, there is biology, there is physics. And although the language has become "let's be more interdisciplinary," if you should go under the surface and actually look at how universities are still run today, there's very little successful interdisciplinary (work).

What about nanotechnology?
Warner: Nanotechnology--there's a whole lot of questions. There are two big areas in nanotechnology. One is obviously the potential hazards. True enough, that's scary and we need to do a lot as we develop product materials to make sure of that.

But I actually have a different take on that and that is, many companies will say, "We've been making such and such product for 40 years. You might have a new way of making it. But what are we going to do--tear down a manufacturing plant and fire all the people?" The expense of tearing down an existing thing and creating something new--are they going to go to another country where it's cheaper? There are all kinds of complications of replacing existing technology.

Nanotechnology isn't in the manufacturing phase, so when companies start doing that, they already have a lot of things to choose from that are environmentally-responsible, green chemistry technologies. If they choose to set up a manufacturing plant using the same traditional hazardous materials in spite of the fact that these other technologies exist, now that's a big problem.

The toxicity of this business card (in my hand) is one thing. But when you consider that probably for every gram of business card there's probably 100 to 1,000 grams of waste generated--the solvents for ink, the solvents used for paper, the energy for transportation.

The toxicity of this card is important, but it's only the tip of the iceberg. Where did this card come from? Where does it come from? The things that consumers never ever see can oftentimes have an even more profound impact on the environment than the actual product itself.

What's your sense of the awareness of these issues? Certainly consumers seem to be learning more, but what about the chemists out there? Do they have enough information?
Warner: Not yet. There's not enough information. They're thirsty for it, they want it. Many, many universities have faculty who say they want to integrate this into their teaching but they don't know how.

Five years ago, green chemistry was kind of unheard of. Now, if you look at the basic freshman textbooks, organic chemistry textbooks, about 50 percent of them have a couple pages on green chemistry, maybe a little section in the back or something like that. Pretty soon it will start being integrated a little more. It's a very, very slow process but it's starting to take root.

What's driving that?
Warner: The students. I had something like 120 students pass through my research lab as a professor in the last 10 years. The average time it's taken for a student to get a job is three days.

I'd never suggest hiring an inferior chemist because they know green chemistry. But if they are a really good chemist and they know green chemistry, wow!

Just think of how many times an inventor comes up with a process and the company gets all excited: 'we're going to go to manufacture it.' And somebody says, "You using that solvent? We can't manufacture with this solvent--the EPA is regulating; it costs us this much." It makes an entire project useless. Someone has to go back and has to reinvent the process or scrap it. So if those people at the very beginning understood those real-world implications, it would be a much more efficient process going from invention. So industry is all over this.

What do you want to do at the institute you founded?
Warner: Essentially, the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry is working with industry to do beaker and flask chemistry to develop these technologies. We will work with industry very quickly and very intelligently on problems. If such and such a company realizes that an adhesive is potentially carcinogenic, we're going to help them find a noncarcinogenic one...Ironically, that's where A Civil Action is from.

How will you transfer technology?
Warner: Essentially, the idea is that it will be company by company. Obviously, we need a sustainable model to employ because part of the process is to have post-docs in the institute train the next generation of scientists simultaneously so it has to be sustainable. But at the same time, I'm in it just to get the product out there.

I'm sure you've heard of William McDonough, who wrote the book Cradle to Cradle about sustainable design. It was written with a chemist. How does your work differ?
Warner: He's working with people to say, "You have to use the best technology available. Why are you using this when you could use this?" When he comes up empty, the chemist's job is to invent that alternative.