Category Archives: Sustainability

Finite Element(s) Chemistry

(Ah! Mathematicians, did you see what I did there?)

There are a number of appalling videos on line in which iPhones are destroyed by various means. From a chemist standpoint, the reason why I’m so disgusted with them is the waste of rare elements which go into the making of their components: From Neodymium to Indium, most of these metals come from conflict zones in which they are extracted in the most precarious conditions imaginable, but furthermore, they are so scarce the production of electronics is almost unsustainable. I wont post any links to these infuriating videos so as to not direct traffic to any of them, instead I will direct your attention to a wonderful book titled The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age by David S. Abraham. (Sheesh! Nobody uses short titles anymore? Can you imagine Nabokov writing Lolita: A little girl with a not so little mind and the professor who picked up on that? I digress.) It is hard not to read this long-titled book and feel a tad guilty; it is in fact a bit blackmailing but above all, realizing what a wasteful society (ugh! I hate that word) we are makes a strong wake up call to the future of sustainability. I would never claim that the solution is renouncing to technology but instead to find a sustainable technology within the framework of current technology. Easier said than done -of course- but stopping waste of such precious resources should be the first step in everyones mind, and don’t even get me started on balloons filled with He! In all fairness, one can also find a lot of scary articles on line from dubious to respectful on how smartphones and other rare-metals-containing gadgets are damaging the Earth.

Last year I enjoyed reading Andy Weir’s novel The Martian (later a major motion picture from Alien’s director Ridley Scott), in which an astronaut is stranded in Mars -left for dead by his crewmates, with nothing but the finite supplies of the station and his knowledge of chemistry, botany and engineering, all of which allows him to survive by extending, but above all reusing, those resources which included not only food but O2, H2O and even hydrazine, H2N2 originally intended for fuel but from where he now gets H2 for synthesizing a larger supply of water by reacting it with the O2 pulled out of the CO2-filled Martian atmosphere. I’m pretty sure Weir didn’t intend this novel to be a metaphor but it definitely works well as one of the limited resources available on Earth and the necessity of optimizing their use, collecting and disposal. Resources on Earth seem infinite, or they at least they did back when the industrial revolution started.

I guess the point is that sustainability goes hand in hand with using the least resources to get new ones as well as with avoiding their waste. I think one must agree that Chemistry, like no other science, has shaped our world for better and worse.

I haven’t rambled on sustainability in a while. Feels bad. Must be the winter.

My take on GMO’s

September’s issue of Scientific American is all about food; food and food science, that is. In it, there are a couple of articles on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) and there is also this blog post in their website being in favor of GMO’s, and I for one, stand by them. There is a global science illiteracy problem going on which accounts for the fear and misinformation most people get on important issues and the fear against GMO’s is one of them and a particularly disturbing one since it deals with a primal necessity of mankind, one that cannot be disregard at any time: Food.

I think when lay people hear GMO immediately think of some sort of Frankenstein plant or some other horror movie monster. For some reason people think technology=good and food=good but food-through-technology=really-bad. Of course we should be weary of what we put on our tables but in order to be weary we first must be thoroughly informed. Us people in favor of controlled GMO technology tend to give these boring arguments on DNA and vectors and so on while the opponents gather more fans with the more alluring image of the Franken-corn! Let me use a real life example to start this discussion

Let me use a human example: My wife has an amazing health. She gets the flu once every year (if at all!); gets knocked down for a couple of days and that’s it! she is back on her feet working and partying the following 363 days of the year. I, on the other hand, am not that lucky. I’get congested very easily with changes in temperature, so every time we go swimming (twice a week, if at all) I end up sneezing my lungs out afterwards. My gastrointestinal system is also very faulty, I easily get… well, you get the picture. Whenever we have kids, it would be easy to presume that they will be not as healthy as their mother but not as sickly as their old man, but something rather in the middle. It could also be the case they were entirely like one of us in the health department, who knows! Lets say they are in the middle. We have now performed a genetic modification which improves my genetic traits. My hypothetical kid is now an improved version of myself but not so much of their mom’s, but definitely not a clone of neither! These hypothetical kids will be humans, just like their mom and I. The key in the above hypothetical procedure is the statistical variability in it. We should have many kids so around half of them had an intermediate health (assuming no genetic trait is more dominant than the other). With plants is the same thing: You might have some corn species with huge grains but low resistance to droughts while other species might need less water to fully grow although the product is not as good as the former. When combined, both species will yield, hopefully, an intermediate species which can be iteratively improved until we achieve corn with big grains and low water demands.

What we cannot do now, is to have these hypothetical kids reproduce with one of their parents as to yield an even healthier human! But when it comes to plants, such as corn or wheat, incest is not an issue. Pollinationcross pollination and plant grafting do exactly this by combining the traits of some species with another’s. Almost no food found in any market has not gone through this process through the last couple hundred years. But this Higher Power (I mean of course farmers and botanists) that has yield this delicious and nutritious vegetables available to us, have worked on a trial and error fashion. Nowadays we can be more precise on what traits we want our vegetables to have from one generation to the next by using genetic engineering techniques. With GMO’s we can create more food resources with a lower energy investment, a key issue in sustainable development of any nation; we can also address some nutrition deficiencies just like it was done in The Phillipines where beta-carotene (the yellow pigment in oranges and carrots) was introduced into rice in order to attack a Vitamin-A deficiency in kids that was rendering them blind.

Europe doesn’t allow the sale of any processed food containing GMO’s while in the US almost no processed food doesn’t include, at any level of their production, a GMO ingredient, but the reason behind this is because in Europe the debate ended before it began while in the US there is still debate on whether to add a label specifying the presence of GMO’s on every food product. The inclusion of such label, at this stage, would only add up to people’s fear of GMO’s because it would be perceived as a ‘warning‘ instead of just as ‘information‘.  Scientific literacy is urgent not just so a good decision is taken but to start the debate! At this point the only thing keeping those labels away from supermarket products is the billions of dollars in lobbying by big companies such as Monsanto (which is not the devil, please put away your crucifixes) and DuPont. But the issue shouldn’t be about money, it should be about the way scientific reasoning should steer the decision making process in this and any other controversial issue.

The potential benefits of GMO are central to the sustainable life and development of our nations, so instead of fearing them lets understand them first.

Green Chemistry and sustainable development 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

The Future We Create (Part II, The webinar)

The Future of Sustainable Chemistry

As part of the ongoing events of the International Year of Chemistry, I was interviewed last month for a webinar titled “The Future of Sustainable Chemistry” which in turn is part of a broader series of webinars called “The Future We Create“. These events are sponsored mainly by the DOW Chemical Co. and organized by the 4goodmedia organization as a way to stir up the debate among a broad spectrum of scientists, entrepreneurs, politicians and pretty much anybody willing to pay attention, about important issues of our time. In this webinar, the role of chemistry as part of the solution to the sustainability problem, was explored. Here is my contribution to the event

The official site and full length video (about an hour long, 30 speakers) is available at Future We Create. I strongly recommend the talks of Peter Adler, Paul Alivisatos, Harry Gray and Martyn Poliakoff, which were some of my favorite.

Despite the popular belief, chemistry is not to be feared but to be learned. We can’t get rid of chemicals, every product we use, every service we hire, requires at some point to cross paths with the chemical industry. But the chemical industry needs to address the problems it generates in our environment on the long run and it is there where green and sustainable chemistry come not as a new branch of chemistry but as a way of doing chemistry.

Needless to say chemistry has transformed our world; and it can do it again.


2011, International Year of Chemistry

The Future of Sustainable Chemistry; The Future We Create (Part I, invitation)

I was recently invited to participate in a series called The Future We Create. This event is the third installment in an ongoing conversation (sponsored by Dow Chemical) to explore how chemistry can collaborate with other sectors and concerned citizens to solve humanity’s most important challenges. The title of this installment is The Future of Sustainable Chemistry which will be aired next Tuesday! An official invitation follows. Thanks and I hope you all tune in (I don’t know if the video will be available on their site after the broadcast).

I am happy to invite you to The Future of Sustainable Chemistry video conference on August 16 at 11am EST, where I will be one of the speakers examining the role chemistry can play in a sustainable future.

In 60 minutes, The Future of Sustainable Chemistry will feature 30 experts from leading universities, government organizations, businesses, research institutes, and non-profits.The topics covered in the webinar will include:
·      The History of Chemistry and the Chemical Industry
·       Defining Sustainable Chemistry
·       Barriers to Sustainable Solutions
·       New Potentials that Could Solve Global Challenges
·       Collaborations, Working Across Sectors and BordersThe virtual conference will help participants from around the world gain a greater sense of the central role chemistry plays in all of our lives, as well as the direction it must take to catalyze a sustainable future.

You can register here:

It is sure to be a lively conversation. I hope to see you there!

Thank you all for reading and making this blog a successful one

2011, International Year of Chemistry

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