EPA’s Green Chemistry Challenge Awards Honor Lab Leaders
So often, when it comes to environmental protection issues or sustainability, we talk about corporations increasing recycling or cutting down waste. They are “you can see the difference” kinds of changes and are easy to point out. However, it’s clear that a major part of making our world greener comes from laboratories, where chemical engineers, scientists and researchers are hard at work making products and manufacturing processes cleaner and greener.
Innovations in chemical technologies lead to safer and more sustainable designs, processes and products that reduce the need to use chemicals that pollute our environment.
Last month in Washington, D.C., the Environmental Protection Agency honored some of these researchers and academics in handing out its annual Green Chemistry Challenge Awards.
The EPA congratulated the 2012 winners for designing, developing and implementing innovative green chemistry technologies that will help create more sustainable industries and greener, safer products to protect people’s health and the environment, according to Jim Jones, acting assistant administrator for the agency’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.
Jones continued, “These are exciting technologies that have great potential to improve the safety of the detergents and personal care products we use in our homes, reduce energy consumption and hazardous waste in industrial metal production processes, improve the paper goods and plastics we use daily so that they are made with a smaller environmental footprint and can be recycled more effectively.”
The Green Chemistry Challenge Awards involved the following categories: Academic, Small Business, Greener Synthetic Pathways, Greener Reaction Conditions and Designing Greener Chemicals.
I spoke to a couple of this year’s winners about their work.
Buckman International, based in Memphis, Tenn., was one of the winners in the Greener Synthetic Pathways, Greener Reaction Conditions and Designing Greener Chemicals categories, recognized for creating enzymes in paper-making that modify the cellulose in wood to increase the number of fibrils that bind the wood fibers to each other. It produces paper with improved strength and quality without additional chemicals or energy.
According to Philip Hoekstra, a research and development director for Buckman, it was a project that has been in the works for nearly a decade.
“We went greener as a company about 20 years ago, and about 10 years ago we said we wanted to spend some resources to see if we could utilize enzymes for paper applications,” Hoekstra told me. “We use enzymes for a lot of different things.”
Buckman’s process also allows paper-making using less wood fiber and higher percentages of recycled paper, enabling a single paper plant to save $1 million per year.
“There are thousands of enzymes that will work on cellulose fibers,” Hoesktra said. “You know the old saying, ‘When a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?’ Well, when a tree falls, those fibers are still there.”
Hoekstra added that the enzymes that Buckman is working with will help make paper stronger, thereby putting less pressure on paper mills. He said, “If the paper’s a little thinner, you could remove the basis weight by 1 percent; then you can figure that it takes 10 trees to make a ton of paper, you can reduce the amount of trees needed. You can reduce the amount of paper needed by 700 tons per day, and that’s 25,000 trees needed for one year.”
Meanwhile, in the Academic category, Robert M. Weymouth, of Stanford University, and James L. Hedrick, an IBM researcher, won an award for their work with organic catalysis.
Their innovation removes hazardous metals used in the production of plastics, creating a safer end-product that allows bottle-to-bottle recycling and thereby providing an opportunity to drastically cut down the millions of pounds of plastic that end up in landfills.
Also in that category, Geoffrey W. Coates, of Cornell University, captured an award for synthesizing biodegradable polymers from carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide that can be used in a wide range of adhesives, foams and plastics and potentially lead to the development of an alternative to bisphenol A for use in can linings.
Back in the Greener Synthetic Pathways, Greener Reaction Conditions and Designing Greener Chemicals categories, I spoke with another winner, Codexis, a Redwood, Calif.-based company, which was awarded, along with Yi Tang, a researcher from UCLA, for a more efficient, safer approach to manufacturing Simvastatin, a statin drug used to treat cardiovascular diseases.
Gjalt Huisman, vice president of product planning for Codexis, told me that the project began in 2008. Codexis had already been honored by the EPA twice prior to this year: In 2006, Codexis was honored for its role in making the drug Januvia more efficiently, while in 2010 it won again for simplifying and “greening” Lipitor.
“We started working on Simvastatin in 2008 and completed the planning process in 2010,” Huisman said. “Then, we started the commercialization process, which takes time because you need regulatory approval of the new process we were working on. We licensed some technology from Yi Tang and UCLA and were then able to continue.”
Codexis took the three-step process used to make Simvastatin and cut out two of the steps, Huisman said.
“From the starting material, it (Simvastatin) has three reactive groups, or hydroxy groups, and what we need to do is convert two of the three groups,” Huisman explained. “We took out a protective step and a de-protective step. We took out two of the steps, and it was intense chemical processing. We then were able to accomplish everything in one step. We also circumvented the use of several nasty chemicals, as well.”
By cutting out two steps, “the overall yield goes up tremendously, about 35 percent,” Huisman added. “And we’re generating 25 times less waste than we did in the old process.”
Huisman said the new process doesn’t change the drug’s effects at all, and that scientists have been trying to do this type of work on commercial drugs for decades.
“In order for this to be a commercial process, the enzyme needs to be improved,” he said. “We needed to speed up the enzyme 1,000-fold to make this process workable; it took a team of scientists about nine months to optimize the enzymes and speed it up.”
In the 17 years of the Green Chemistry Challenge Awards program, the EPA has received 1,492 nominations and presented awards to 88 winners.