Green chemistry promises better, safer, more affordable products

SAC I
Robin Rogers

Green chemistry is about developing products and processes which are not only ‘green’ but are better and more affordable than existing alternatives, according to Dr. Robin Rogers, holder of McGill’s Canadian Excellence Research Chair in Green Chemistry and Green Chemicals.

Better living through (green) chemistry! It’s a slogan whose time may have come. Although chemistry has provided countless benefits over the years, its public image has suffered in recent decades because of perceived links to environmental problems. Now, with the advent of green chemistry, the tide is turning.

“Green chemistry started in the mid-90s,” says Dr. Robin Rogers, holder of McGill’s Canadian Excellence Research Chair in Green Chemistry and Green Chemicals. “Its goal was to develop chemical products to improve quality of life without harming the environment or exhausting natural resources. Green chemistry is about sustainability. However, for true sustainability, we not only have to make molecules and materials in an environmentally responsible way, but to create an economically viable product.

Creating products that are better – and more affordable

“The challenge is to create new chemicals, materials and technologies which people will use, not just because they are green, but because they’re better and cheaper. If people can choose a “green” toothbrush for one hundred dollars or a regular toothbrush for twenty cents, only a small segment will choose the ‘green’ toothbrush. But what if the ‘green’ toothbrush was made of a natural material, sustainable — and only cost twelve cents? To transform society we have to give people what they want — at an affordable price.”

McGill University is well positioned to be a world leader in sustainable industry. The challenge is to integrate the concept of sustainability into everything — hard to do, because ‘sustainability’ is not a unified field of study. “Right now at McGill, there are probably half a dozen institutes concerned with different aspects of sustainability,” says Rogers. “Integrating their efforts requires familiarity with law, engineering, science and business. We need one entity to put all that expertise together.”

Working with society is key to sustainability

“One of my ‘heroes,’ George Washington Carver, did fundamental and applied research and worked with society. He developed the peanut as a crop and then developed peanut oil and created a market for it. On top of that, he taught farmers better lifestyles and better cultivating methods. He didn’t ‘just’ develop technology, he taught people how to use technology and better their lives at the same time.”

Rogers’ work in green chemistry has already found industrial applications. In the early 2000s, he and his colleagues discovered that liquid solvent systems could dissolve cellulose, the major polymer in trees. A process based on this discovery was licensed to an industrial partner interested in manufacturing natural fibers using less energy and fibers than the old process.

chitin-medicine-1

A natural polymer called chitin can be extracted from shellfish and used to make high-value medical fibers. Ultimately, fibers from this natural source could to used to make a “green” alternative to petrochemical-based plastic.

“More recently, we learned how to extract a natural polymer called chitin from shellfish,” he says. “This can be used to make high-value medical fibers and ultimately, fibers to replace plastic. At the moment, oil-based plastic is cheap, so if we want to replace it, we’re going to have to find some way to achieve economies of scale.”

Partnering with Canadian fishing industry to create new job

In addition to putting his teaching and research programs into place, Rogers plans to found a start-up company to produce high-value materials from chitin using green technology. He hopes to work with the Canadian fishing industry to set up an extraction facility – a project which has the potential to create new jobs and new technologies.

“Canadian Excellence Research Chairs were created to help society by promoting sustainable, science-based innovation,” says Rogers. “My vision is to see Canadian industry leading the way in sustainable, profitable products a decade or two from now, thanks to this investment.”

 

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