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Mastering the Molecule
Yale professor Paul Anastas has a vision of the future: better living through chemistry. No, really

Photo of Paul AnastasA boyish-looking 45, Paul Anastas has already long been known as the father of green chemistry -- a field he defines as "the design of chemicals and chemical processes that reduce harm to humans and the environment." It involves inventing not only safer chemicals but also processes that produce less, and less hazardous, waste, and which are based on renewable raw materials. In 1989 he joined the Environmental Protection Agency, becoming chief of the industrial chemistry branch and director of the agency's program in green chemistry -- a term he coined. In 1997, while he was still in government, he helped found the private Green Chemistry Institute, which now has chapters in 24 countries. This January he took up a position as professor of green chemistry at Yale. In his 1817 saltbox house near New Haven, Connecticut, Anastas seated himself next to an antique phonograph and other bits of old-time technology that he treasures and talked with science journalist Kevin Krajick.

Many people assume chemists are evil -- they inevitably cause pollution.
People don't know we have the option of doing things green. They think that in order to have cars, computers, and other modern conveniences, we need to generate all kinds of nasty poisons. Green chemistry is disproving that myth every day.

What's really new about it?
We're touching on something not done historically, which is to design molecules with an eye to consequences, right from the start. You go back to the basic chemical properties -- volatility, electronic properties, boiling point. That way you can design a molecule to do exactly what you want. If you just try to deal with a particular hazardous outcome -- cancer or poisoning or explosions -- then you're addressing things piecemeal. If you go back down to the molecular architecture, you can address a wide range of issues.

Have science and technology evolved to the point where we can do that?
Scientists are now inventing or discovering 4,000 new chemicals a day. We can make something blue or red, or rubbery or brittle, and the whole reason is our command of how molecules work. Because we know more about the mechanisms of toxicity, both in the body and in the biosphere, we can build molecules that eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, a wide range of hazards. I should probably add that we will never reach perfection. Nothing will ever be perfectly green.

Has green chemistry actually taken hold anywhere?
I could give you hundreds of examples of award-winning technologies, used by companies in the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Italy, that have eliminated literally billions of pounds of hazardous substances. It goes from the way we make pharmaceuticals or electronics to the way we raise crops or paint the bottoms of boats. That said, for every one process or product that uses green chemistry, there may be a hundred or more that have yet to be considered. So 99 percent of the work is still left.

Give me a few examples of things we're using now, or will be using soon.
Sure. Polylactic acid is a plastic whose molecule is made from potatoes, corn, and other plant sources. Wal-Mart put in multimillion-pound orders a year ago for cups, soup containers, food packaging -- it's just getting going. Arsenic in treated lumber has been recognized as a problem, and green chemistry has come up with a water-based alternative. There's also supercritical carbon dioxide -- that is, CO2 put under high pressure so it becomes a fluid [in this form it does not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions]. It's now used in many processes that previously used some fairly toxic solvents. That includes decaffeinating coffee, which historically used methylene chloride, a cancer suspect that is also used for stripping paint. CO2 is also used in dry-cleaning, which up to now has typically used a toxic chemical called PCE.

So why arenít more businesses using these new techniques?
The replacement cost of machinery is a big part of the equation. Take dry-cleaning, for example. CO2 itself is vastly cheaper than PCE, but a new machine costs somewhere around $40,000. Most dry cleaners are mom-and-pop shops, and they can't afford to throw away a "perfectly good" machine. There should be a whole portfolio of incentives for industries to overcome this, such as patent extensions for pharmaceutical companies that invent processes for making major drugs using green chemistry.

Once we retool, can green chemistry make economic sense on its own?
If you're in business, your interest is to make money, so if somebody came up with a green-chemistry solution that made no economic sense, I'd say, Go back to the drawing board. The idea is to meet environmental and economic goals simultaneously. We have lots of ways to protect people from hazards, but they're foolish because they're cost drains. Whether you're talking about smokestack scrubbers or treatment of effluent or wearing gloves and goggles, they can't add any value or any performance. When you're addressing environmental concerns, you should also be looking to introduce efficiencies that are economically beneficial.

Does regulation have to play a role?
No. Attempts at regulating innovation don't have a good track record. It's legitimate to regulate out the bad. It's usually folly to regulate in the good. If you view regulations as a tax on polluting and bad behavior, green chemistry is a way around them. It allows you to avoid making the substances that are regulated. Companies will understand that if they don't innovate to keep up with their competitors, they will lose.

What's the biggest scientific challenge we face?
Wow. There are lots. For example, we don't understand how chemicals interact with each other nearly as well as we understand how they act alone. Or how even the greenest molecules may disrupt our endocrine system -- that's a real complex issue.

Is there a place for green chemistry in the developing world, where people are trying so hard to rapidly advance their economies, often at the expense of the environment?
The developing world is the greatest area of growth for green chemistry, because that's where the main expansion of industrial capacity is taking place. In the developed world we have existing processes and plants that we need to displace; in the developing world, they're often starting from scratch. So when they build new plants, they can build at the state of the art -- and green chemistry is state of the art. In China, they have big new green-chemistry plants making polycarbonate, the clear plastic you see in things like Plexiglas. Here, we're still making it using phosgene -- a chemical-warfare agent. In India, the minister of science and technology just decreed that every chemistry student has to take a year of green chemistry. They're looking to grow through innovation.

How did you get started in this field in the first place?
Ah! I grew up outside Boston, in Quincy, Massachusetts, on a little hill overlooking the most beautiful wetland you've ever seen. And one day when I was 8 or 9 years old the bulldozers arrived, and filled it with banks and insurance companies. My father was a biology teacher, and he knew how much this upset me. He said, If you really care about something, you should learn about it. I decided to pursue chemistry. It touches everything we see, feel, hear, and touch.

Makes me think of my 6-year-old daughter -- I just gave her her first chemistry set. Any advice for her?
Oh, yeah! It's a great time to be a chemist. A friend of mine once asked, tongue in cheek, why there's no green astronomy, no green geology. The answer is serious: Unlike other science, which seeks to understand the world as it is, chemistry introduces new things into the world, and because of that we have the responsibility for the consequences. Science and technology won't be able to achieve sustainability alone. But I donít know of a pathway to sustainability that isnít going to require science and technology.

Mysteries of the Deep
La Vie en Vert
Mastering the Molecule
The Opposite of Collateral Damage
Teenage Wonder
New Buzz -- This Just In
Naked Planet
Skiing Without Snow
The Landscape of Our Dreams

Image of a now leopard

The Opposite of Collateral Damage
When we think of the impact of war on the environment, our first thought is usually of degradation. But in the mountainous rainforests of Jammu and Kashmir, on the borders of India, Pakistan, and China, armed conflict between militant separatists and Indian security forces has had a surprising effect, revitalizing indigenous animal populations.

To help identify militants and distinguish them from the general population, police have convinced villagers to turn in their weapons. Wary locals no longer venture deep into the insurgent-occupied rainforest, fearful of being caught in the crossfire between warring factions. Poaching has been brought nearly to a halt, and animal populations are rebounding.

No one is recommending war as a conservation strategy, but since fighting began in the late 1980s rare creatures such as the snow leopard and the pirpanjal markhor goat have seen a 20 percent to 60 percent rise in their populations. The numbers of Himalayan black bears and hanguls, a relative of the reindeer found only in Kashmir, have more than doubled.
-- Adam Spangler

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Photos: left, Steve Marsel; right, Brandon Ballengée

OnEarth. Spring 2007
Copyright 2007 by the Natural Resources Defense Council