Industry Market Trends

Commercializing Green Chemistry: Innovators Accept the Challenge

Jun 24, 2013

Credit: Horia Varlan, CC BY 2.0 Credit: Horia Varlan, CC BY 2.0

How can industry develop materials that contribute to a sustainable world rather than inflict environmental damage? And how can such materials actually be brought to the market, so they serve an economic purpose and really do some good?

That's a tall order, but the scientists, business leaders, engineers, researchers and students who attended the American Chemical Society's (ACS) 17th annual Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference in Bethesda, Md., believe they are up to that challenge.

What Is Green Chemistry?

Presenters at the conference made frequent reference to 12 principles of green chemistry first articulated in Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, by Paul T. Anastas and John C. Warner:

  1. Prevention of waste to avoid having to treat it or clean it up
  2. Atom economy, that is, maximizing the volume of material that ends up in the final product
  3. Less-hazardous chemical syntheses that generate substances with little or no toxicity
  4. Design of safer chemicals
  5. Development of safer auxiliary substances such as solvents and separation agents
  6. Design for energy efficiency in chemical processes
  7. Use of renewable feedstocks
  8. Reduction of unnecessary derivatives that can require additional reagents and generate waste
  9. Choosing catalytic reagents in preference to stoichiometric reagents
  10. Design for degradation so materials break down into harmless substances at end of life and don't persist in the environment
  11. Conducting real-time monitoring, analysis, and control for pollution prevention
  12. Development of inherently safer chemicals, choosing substances in order to minimize accidents

This framework is an important driver behind the work of the innovators who discussed their developments in sustainable chemistry at the ACS event.

What's Driving Green Chemistry Adoption?

Speaking at the conference, Lynn Leger, director of advanced-materials development firm Alcereco, discussed the results of a survey she conducted with recipients on the ACS mailing list. Respondents were asked what they believed would be the most important drivers for the adoption of green chemistry over the next 10 years.

"Better training for chemists" was the highest-scoring factor, with over half of respondents citing this factor as one of the most important drivers of future adoption for green chemistry. Interestingly, the second most-cited driver of adoption chosen by respondents was cost savings. This might seem like a counter-intuitive finding, as the marketplace tends to view green materials as more expensive. The survey included a follow-up question on this particular point, asking whether the introduction of green chemistry generally leads to a higher price for the customer. Interestingly, Leger said in her presentation, "Two-thirds of respondents said 'no.'"

Courtesy of Lynn Leger, ALCERECO Courtesy of Lynn Leger, ALCERECO

Other adoption drivers that yielded significant response included consumer awareness, development of innovative new products, commitment by senior management at companies, increased R&D investment, and regulation.

Later I asked Leger what she thinks innovators in green chemistry should be doing to develop solutions that have the greatest potential for market adoption. She replied,

I hope that the survey and the presenters in the session made the point that green chemistry -- or sustainable chemistry, as many in industry prefer -- has already become a source of innovation and process efficiency. It is good business, and if innovators see green chemistry as a tool to deliver value to their customers and not something where the customer has to sacrifice performance or price, then and only then will it become the normal way of doing things.

Bridging the Gap Between Research and Commercialization

Several presentations at the the conference spotlighted the challenge of aligning research with business needs. A team at a university or research institute might come up with a brilliant idea for a new green material. But many great ideas never get turned into products in the real world. Part of the problem is the misalignment of incentives between researchers and commercial enterprises.

Academic and industry researchers use poster presentations to share their green-chemistry innovations. Academic and industry researchers use poster presentations to share their green-chemistry innovations.

"Clearly the reason why as an industry we would go to the university is that you have third-party objectivity to offer," said Joanna Brickman, director of collaborative innovation at Oregon BEST (Built Environment and Sustainable Technologies), a non-profit organization in Portland that focuses on sustainable technologies and works to connect businesses with university research. "There's a degree of scientific rigor that's very difficult to get or demonstrate any other way, and you have this great pool of innovative students."

"As far as opportunities," she continued, "the business world really has a great need, a great demand for disruptive technology. They want to see the next big thing." Unfortunately, the drivers of business and the drivers in academia don't always line up. For an academic researcher, the incentives might drive toward publishing rather than commercialization.

As a way to correct such misalignments, Brickman pointed to an initiative at the University of Utah, which has begun to tie promotion and tenure to commercialization efforts in addition to publishing and research. As a result, the institution has one of the nation's highest rates of new tech startups.

Demonstrating Commercial Scale

In a presentation about chemistry education for commercialization, Andrew S. Pasternak, director of commercial development for GreenCentre Canada, described his organization's work helping to commercialize innovations in green chemistry. GreenCentre Canada, located at the Innovation Park at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, was established in 2009 and funded by the governments of Ontario and Canada as a Centre of Excellence for Commercialization and Research (CECR). The organization has 12 scientists and an extensive lab that dominates its 10,000-square-foot facility.

A plant jointly developed by BASF and Dow Chemical uses hydrogen peroxide to more sustainably produce propylene oxide, an important chemical building block. Credit: BASF A plant jointly developed by BASF and Dow Chemical uses hydrogen peroxide to more sustainably produce propylene oxide, an important chemical building block. Credit: BASF

Pasternak told the conference audience said the CECRs, now numbering 21, were formed when the Canadian government found that "they put billions of dollars into the academic world, and they looked at the technologies coming out on the other end -- the technology transfers, the spin-outs, the licensing -- and they found a big gap. There's a lot of money being put in and not a lot being put out in terms of marketable products."

Pasternak pointed out that "the chemical industry is very, very capital-intensive." He stressed that "there's always a need for new and better things, but they cost a lot of money to implement, and there are large time-scales involved. There's great interest in helping out on the academic side, but the unfortunate corollary is the industry is inundated with these technologies that are, frankly, under-developed and of no immediate use to the company, although they could be of use if developed properly."

Thus a role opens up for an organization such as GreenCentre Canada that can bridge the gap, taking unproven green-chemistry technologies generated by research universities and demonstrating that they can be practical at commercial scale. GreenCentre is managed by a group of industry sponsors who sit on the organization's board. These sponsors, who are non-competing within their industries, advise the organization and actually get first crack at any new technologies developed by GreenCentre. They include Bayer, Agilent, Intel, Ford, and Veolia. "They drive us pretty hard to act like an industrial company," said Pasternak. GreenCentre has had 468 technologies submitted from technology transfer offices since 2009 and is currently developing about 20. The group helps foster spinouts and new-company creation.

Next week, I will continue with more insights from the ACS Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference, and will focus on some of the sustainable chemicals and materials that are being brought to the market by the researchers and companies presenting and exhibiting at the event.