As I recently pointed out in an interview for a webinar titled The Future We Create, (sponsored by the Dow Chemical Co.) I believe we must clearly differentiate the concepts of Green Chemistry and Sustainable chemistry or we take the risk of confusing purpose and procedure; instead, having them both clearly defined we can use their definitions as a working frame in order to solve the ongoing environmental problems our society is facing.
While I consider them both a lifestyle in science, one of the utmost relevance, Green Chemistry is oriented towards the way we perform chemistry in order to achieve a sustainable chemical industry. Chemicals are part of the human revolution, understood as that in which the human race has transformed his own environment and surroundings to an amazing -and yet alarming- extent; so chemicals and their chemistry, are not going anywhere. Perhaps we haven’t performed this revolution in the best possible way; and by that I mean a way in which we could keep on transforming our world and our surrounding environment practically forever without actually damaging but blending with them, incorporating the natural cycle of renewable resources in our own transformations. Sustainability is the way by which a process can endure over a long period of time and it requires a balance between the intake of resources and the outcome of products and byproducts, which ideally should blend back into the environment, or even yet more ideally, help in the coupled equilibrium of the generation of the resources needed in the intake of the same processes that generate them in the first place. It is a matter of balance, but more importantly about cycles; cycles that couple with one another in an economically, socially and chemically productive way. Only with this approach will our current society endure for the generations to come and will gradually encompass a larger number of individuals, minimizing the population whose survival is in danger.
Sustainable chemistry is the philosophical approach, the ethical code if you please, with which the ongoing transformations can still be performed while the damage to the environment, namely our ecosystems, is brought to a minimum in order to maintain our industry and the benefits therefrom for generations to come and spread to a larger scale. But this is not only a mater of environmentalist nature, it is also an economical matter; Sustainable developement has to bring forward those who were already left behind; societies that now in the 21st century are still struggling with famine and disease and furthermore now face an even worse scenario when it comes to water. Also in urban areas sustainability can be the answer to job creations. Companies must increase their profits year after year, no doubt about it, but doing so in a sustainable and socially responsible way can ensure larger growths over larger periods of time while sacrificing the immediate profit for the long-term benefit.
Computational chemistry plays a key role in the paradigm shift towards a sustainable chemical industry. The QSAR approach allows us to analyze the physicochemical properties of a very large number of compounds in less time of what ordinary chemistry would take. Computational chemistry gives the researcher a deeper insight of the electronic effects of any given chemical process through the mathematical modeling and computing of various properties. Computational chemistry based QSAR, alongside with combinatorial chemistry and high throughput screening methods are able to do the work of a thousand chemists in less than a year, saving resources, time and also making a larger exploration of the chemical space relevant to the process under study.
Nature has been sustainable on its own with no better example than photosynthesis. Photosynthetic organisms use CO2 as intake and transform H2O during that process into O2 which is expelled as a byproduct which is then inhaled by animal organisms which use it in their metabolism to produce CO2 as a waste product. The fragile equilibrium goes on and on provided other equilibria are kept in balance (physical conditions such as pressure and temperature).
Of course, as Kermit the Frog has previously stated:
But it should be! Right now it ain’t because we haven’t done enough efforts to perform a paradigm shift. in schools, in our jobs; our everyday lives. it will be very expensive yet the cost of negligence will be even higher and paid by the generations to come.
Many things have been written about sustainability; we should all read at least some of them…
Please share your thoughts and practical ideas for a sustainable future within the framework of your own green chemistry paradigm in the comments section.
2011, International Year of Chemistry