Over 20,000 people dead and more than 120,000 people still suffering devastating health effects. These are the results of the Bhopal gas tragedy that occurred in December 1984 because of a gas leak. I chanced upon these mind-boggling statistics when I was researching for a school project about the world’s worst disasters. I saw the heart-wrenching pictures from the news reports and began to question my long love for the subject of Chemistry. I came to love chemistry because of its application to everyday life, through applications in antibiotics, water purification, fertilisers, etc. However, the staggering numbers from the Bhopal tragedy made me sit back and think long and hard about my chosen area of career interest.
Then came the unusual incident of the Bellandur lake catching fire in Bangalore. Did you know lakes could catch fire? Effluents from “nearby industries” had led to a build-up of combustible methane gas, causing the fire. Experts said that “a slurry of oil and phosphorus from untreated industrial waste and sewage likely created the conditions for the combustible cocktail to ignite.”
This was too close to home. The drive to find a solution heightened in me. I started researching ways to harness the benefits of chemistry, without it harming people or the environment, which then led me to Green Chemistry.
Green Chemistry is a concept that is not new – it is simply unknown. It is an area of chemistry and chemical engineering focused on the design of products and processes that minimise the use and generation of hazardous substances. It has 12 principles that sound rather obvious, but the chemical industry has its roots so deep into the traditional way of doing ‘business’ that they seem to have forgotten about the effects of their work. Some of the principles are:
1. Prevention (It is better to prevent waste than treating it or cleaning up afterwards.)
2. Design for Degradation (Chemicals must be designed in a way so that they do not persist in the environment.)
3. Safer Solvents and Auxiliaries (Auxiliary substances (e.g., solvents, separation agents, etc.) should be made unnecessary or innocuous when used.)
Now, I’m not here to give anybody a chemistry lesson, but allow me to break down Green Chemistry through simple examples. If you make lemonade at home:
1. Don’t use readymade lemonade packets (Principle: Safer solvents and auxiliaries)
2. Use real lemons and exactly the number of lemons you need (Principle: Prevention)
3. Throw the used lemons in a compost so they can decompose and become manure (Principle: Design for Degradation)
Here are some examples of real world companies making this change:
1. Richard Wool is former director of the Affordable Composites from Renewable Sources (ACRES) programme at the University of Delaware. He actually found a way to create microchip circuit boards using chicken feathers! He used the keratin from the chicken feathers to make a light and tough fibre. This resulted in a microchip that works at double the speed! This breakthrough has now gone on to be used for discovering more ways where materials like chicken feathers can be used.
2. The paint we use today, when drying up, gives out a lot of volatile compounds that evaporate into the air leading to negative environmental impacts. Sherwin-Williams created water-based acrylic alkyd paints that can be made using soybean oil, recycled plastic soda bottles and acrylics. The first batch of Sherwin-Williams’ new paint eliminated more than 362,874 kgs of volatile compounds.
Being someone who wants to have a career in chemistry, I was overjoyed to find this solution. Green Chemistry is the future of Chemistry!
I request the teachers of today to enlighten their students about green chemistry at a young age. I request chemical companies to seek the help of green chemistry organisations to incorporate the use of eco-friendly processes and technology. I request the youth of today to read up on green chemistry so they grow up knowing that there’s an alternative. Those who look to build a career in a similar industry, please opt to inculcate green chemistry, so we can, together, bridge the gap between Chemistry and Green Chemistry.