Whether it’s the microchip in your smartphone, or the medicine in your bathroom cabinet, chemistry probably plays a bigger role in your life than you may think. But all the trappings of modern life come at a cost: many of them are made using “dirty” processes and hazardous chemicals. Robin Rogers thinks there’s a safer, more sustainable way to have our computers (and meds, and plastics, and fuels and…) without endangering our world: green chemistry.
By James Martin
A 2015 Statistics Canada study connected bisphenol A with behavioral problems in children. It was just the latest strike against this common plasticizer, already known to disrupt hormones. Canada banned the use of BPA in baby bottles in 2008, and a debate rages as to whether BPA should be banned outright. But for Robin Rogers, who came to McGill in 2015 as the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Green Chemistry and Green Chemicals, the question isn’t whether to replace BPA with a different plasticizer—it’s how to make those bottles using completely different polymers that don’t require any kind of plasticizer.
The world runs on chemistry. Chemical reactions are necessary to make computer chips and plastics, pharmaceuticals and fuels. Many of these processes, however, require toxic ingredients or create hazardous waste. For 20 years, Rogers has been at the forefront of a research movement to rethink chemistry’s “dirtiest” processes and products, but without compromising productivity. He stresses that green chemistry isn’t about doing chemistry as usual, just with the dangerous chemicals replaced by less-dangerous alternatives, but coming up with entirely new processes altogether. “I know it’s a long-term prospect,” he admits, “but I would rather invent digital photography than a renewable film for cameras.”
His gateway chemical into the world of environmentally responsible chemistry was salt – specifically, ionic liquids, a class of liquid salt. Many common manufacturing procedures, such as turning wood into paper, require highly toxic solvents. Working at the University of Alabama in 1996, Rogers began exploring whether he could recreate these crucial chemical processes using non-toxic liquid salts as solvents. The results were so promising that two years later, he founded the Center for Green Manufacturing, an interdisciplinary home for scientists, engineers, and business faculty to facilitate the formation of teams for R&D on green technologies that would lead to sustainability—environmentally, economically and socially—in the manufacturing sector. “In other words,” he says, “to bring in all of the expertise needed to develop sustainable technologies at the point of conception rather than when it’s ready for commercialization.”
As a researcher and a teacher, Rogers is a vocal advocate for making chemistry socially relevant, and responsible. “Why, when you’re being taught how to make new molecules,” he asks, “do you not get taught anything about toxicology, or environmental fate, or what might happen if that new chemical was actually used by somebody?” He points to fellow Alabama scientist George Washington Carver, who saved failing cotton farmers by introducing peanuts as an alternative crop, as an example of what he sees as “a sort of social contract between academia and society to improve livelihood and lives.”
Rogers is interested in extracting polymers from various bio-materials, to create new, renewable materials that could replace synthetic plastics. This summer, he’ll cut the ribbon on a new research lab in the basement of the former Pulp and Paper Building on McGill’s downtown campus. There, his team will fine-tune a demonstration-size biorefinery where any biomass feedstock (including municipal waste and trees) can be separated more efficiently and cleaner than ever before into useful biopolymers and chemicals. Their process already works, the next stage is to get it economically viable.
In another lab, which is already up and running in the Otto Maass Chemistry Building next door, his team is already extracting a polymer called chitin from discarded shrimp shells. Because of chitin’s bio-active and anti-microbial qualities, and flexibility and strength, it has many applications in the medical supply market, such as surgical thread and bandages. But the traditional pulping process is, says Rogers, “so dirty –it involves hydrochloric acid, caustic, and methanesulfonic acid—and uses so much energy that there is not a single commercial producer of chitin in North America.” Currently, bandages and other products are made using chitosan, an inferior derivative made with lye; using Rogers’ new cleaner process, a higher-value, made-in-Canada chitin could compete in the estimated $63 billion USD market.
Green means growth
Rogers likes to open his undergraduate lectures with a quote from Sir William Henry Bragg, the Nobel-winning British scientist: The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them. “That’s what ionic liquids did for me,” he says of his sea-change moment in 98. “Everyone knew what they were, but nobody had thought of them as a solvent.”
Still, some factions of the chemistry community were slow to come on board. They felt that green chemistry was tree-hugging, not hard science. That attitude has largely changed, Rogers says, but now the challenge is to win over the private sector.
“For many people,” he says, “green is still a bad word. It means lowering the economy. It means telling people to stop what they’re doing. But I think green chemistry represents economic growth and development. It means developing the tools, the methods, the understanding, and the technologies that are needed for the next levels of economic prosperity.”
He believes collaboration is the key. Rather than developing new technologies that industry could adopt, he’s working with companies to integrate concepts such as life-cycle assessment, toxicity and biodegradability into their business practices. This means getting out of the lab and into the outside world. A lot.
Rogers has logged more than 2,000,000 air miles—and visited six of the seven continents in the last two years—in his quest to bring the message of green chemistry sustainability to scientists and industries. In Mumbai, he’s helping a petroleum refining company create a more sustainable footprint by eliminating the dangerous catalyst HF. In China, he is working with the major state-owned food company to convert waste into products. In the US, he is working with a major chemical company to eliminate hazards in the creation of their product.
There are also collaborations that are not about process, but simply about making a better end-product. He has collaborated with the Takeda Pharmaceuticals International Co., for example, to improve sulfasalazine. The anti-inflammatory drug, which is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis among other conditions, was under-prescribed because of patients’ difficulties in absorbing it. By pairing the sulfasalazine molecule with another ion to create a liquid salt, Rogers’ lab increased the drug’s water solubility 4,000 times higher than the neutral drug—meaning that its bioavailabilty, or how well a drug is absorbed into the bloodstream, increased 2.5 times.
“If you don’t get out of the ivory tower,” he says, “you won’t understand what the world is thinking and what they need. You can’t be isolated. It would be very comfortable to stay here, teach my classes and work with my group—but it’s exciting to get out and to try to make a difference.”