Friday, October 24, 2008

Entire Departments Struggle to be Green

By: Beth Papanek

Organizations and philanthropic groups on campus are not the only ones pushing for a “Greener” University. Entire majors and departments have begun to understand the need to make their work more sustainable. One such branch is the Chemistry department.

Chemistry going Green happens on a number of levels on campus. There is the actual scientific research being done. A lot of this is slowly turning toward environmentally conscious research. It also is an issue on making the research being done more environmentally friendly. Finally, it shows up in teaching labs where there are much stricter regulations on waste disposal, and experiments are being done on a smaller scale. The current push is to make current research more efficient and deal with wastes more effectively.

Chemistry in academia has been an environmental problem due to a lack of accountability. Toxic wastes and materials are gathered in separate containers. When they become full a work order is submitted and the University’s Waste Management program picks them up. All of the waste is taken care of, but individual students don’t consider the final destiny of those waste products. Accountability is slowly being enforced due to an increasing amount of requirements from the University of Illinois. More paperwork is required when disposing of wastes and clearly labeled containers are a necessity.

Waste management has become a smaller problem in industry over the last several years because companies are directly financially responsible for the disposal of their wastes. A few select companies have begun to realize the need to integrate waste management programs into the academic field. One example of this is Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM) providing funding for Professor Pat Shapley’s research group where her government grants are failing. She said, “With a change in administration the funding will go back up, but slowly. There is too much money promised elsewhere.”

The research done by this group involves turning agricultural products into chemicals that are currently made through petroleum-based processes. The current method of making these products involves using organic solvents to do reactions in. Organic solvents are hard on the environment and do not decompose readily. The goal of Professor Shapley’s work is to utilize sequestered liquid carbon dioxide in place of those organic solvents. Using this method of chemical reactions, the only by-product of the processes would be water.

This trend is taking place in other labs on campus as well. In Professor Tom Rauchfuss’s lab, there has been a push to replace organic solvents with water. The goal is to make the reactions that currently take place in toxic chemicals to proceed the same way in water. Though this is difficult on research, it would eventually lead to far less waste.

Although practices are improving, it is not yet a widely accepted need. Money is a driving factor in the research being done. According to Shapley, “Industrial funding is done year by year. It makes it hard to plan for Ph.D. students.” Her group used to be funded by the EPA, but since the current administration took office, there has been little funding from the government in Chemistry. “The money is there for engineering, but not Chemistry,” said Shapley. While the faculty at large understands the need to change, advancing research is driven by federal grants.
To meet the need to be environmentally responsible as well as not exceed budgets requires a lot of planning and careful consumption. Sharing chemicals between groups and even overlapping between Chemistry and Chemical Engineering has become commonplace rather than buying new bottles. Experiments are also being done on smaller scales to avoid large amounts of waste.
As Professor Rauchfuss said, “Chemistry has always been Green – Greenback. There is a large overlap between the environment and money.” For this reason, the move to become environmentally conscious is there, but slow. “There is great sensitivity in the faculty,” said Rauchfuss. This sentiment was shared by Shapley who said, “The Faculty in general see the need to change, but it’s driven by federal grants.” The knowledge that practices need to change is overwhelming, but the struggle for the funds to follow through with this need is in close opposition. When the money is present, the research and the improvements in practice will follow.

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