Green Chemistry Joins College Curriculum
Tuesday, October 9, 2007; 5:00 PM
BOSTON -- Terry Collins sounds like the world's most dour pessimist. The Carnegie Mellon University chemistry professor paints a bleak picture of the Earth's future, a planet damaged by global warming and ravaged by toxins, with a population sickened by poisonous chemicals.
"We are practicing time-limited technologies that cause all sorts of environmental damage, and are damaging to the species, to our very civilization," said Collins, director of Carnegie Mellon's Institute for Green Oxidation Chemistry in Pittsburgh.
But Collins also is an optimist, hoping science can solve those problems. He is encouraged by an increasing number of colleges and universities that incorporate the principles of green chemistry _ the idea that chemical processes and products can be designed without using toxins or generating hazardous waste.
"When you think about chemistry, most people think about the hazards," said Paul Anastas, who coined the term green chemistry in 1991 while working at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He is now director of Yale University's Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering.
"People think about how it's going to hurt them, how it's going to hurt the world. But green chemistry looks at how we can develop products that won't hurt the environment."
The American Chemical Society, which certifies more than 600 college chemistry programs, lists only about a dozen that teach green chemistry. But that number is growing.
Yale's center opened at the beginning of this year, while Cambridge College in Cambridge, Mass., is offering an introduction to green chemistry class this fall and has the nation's first bachelor's and master's degrees in green chemistry.
Other colleges, including Carnegie Mellon and the University of Oregon, have been teaching green chemistry for years.
Students who have been brought up in an age of unprecedented environmental awareness are eager to embrace green chemistry.
"There's a moral imperative to do this," said Chad Ellis, a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon and a research assistant in Collins' lab, where they are working on a process to break down toxins and make them benign in the environment.
"The biggest issue here is the exponential growth of the world's population," he said. "All those people are going to want food, light bulbs, cars, etc., and we're going to have to figure out a way to do that, because current techniques won't work."
Cambridge's program will have classes in toxicology, environmental science, sustainability and even environmental law and policy, Warner said. The subjects are not traditionally taught to chemistry majors.