Seminar 13th February 2018 transcript
ANDREA HINWOOD: Welcome everyone and thank you for joining us at EPA’s second environmental science seminar series event “Green Chemistry - the missing elements” with special guest speaker Professor John Warner.
Today's event was brought to you in collaboration with Monash University and we're very grateful to Monash for allowing us to have John speak in this particular series.
Our event today is being held on the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and I wish to acknowledge them as the traditional owners. I’d also like to pay my respects to their elders, past and present and the elders of other communities who may be here today.
I'd clearly like to welcome our guest speaker professor John Warner president and chief technology officer of Warner Babcock Institute our special guest Mr David Pullen from EPA science engineering and health committee and also Leonie Walsh who's here from that committee as well. Dr Mihaela Ivan who's acting deputy chief health officer DHHS. Professor Bart Folink, head of school of chemistry, Monash University, and my other colleagues from Monash university Ian James and Tony Patti who made all this possible, welcome as well.
I'd also like to welcome everyone who's live streaming this event in Victoria we actually have people from far-flung places as well as about 100 people live streaming at the moment so hello everyone out there.
So just a few housekeeping notes before we start. Please put your phones on silent for the duration of the event and if the emergency tones go off please follow the instructions of on-site staff and it's fairly clear where the exits are.
So what we're here to talk about today is green chemistry and for some students they might think of green slime because they did that at school and then for those of us who are interested in the role of chemistry in products and wastes and all the rest of it we talk about sustainable development and stewardship of our life cycle of products.
It's an area of chemistry and chemical engineering focused on the design of products and processes that minimise the use and generation of hazardous substances. Green chemistry is behind many of the world's innovations in terms of some of our pharmaceuticals, household products, etc. Examples include the use of chicken feathers in the manufacture of chips, engineered enzymes to create pharmaceutical products, biodegradable plastics and bio-based paints. It's an emerging field but a really important one and one of the reasons it's really important to us at EPA is we tend to deal with the legacy of chemical contamination of the environment, much of which is created by some of the products that are in common use today. And every year we actually import 200 industrial chemicals, many of them are hazardous. Of the new industrial chemicals classified as hazardous to human health about 30 percent are used in personal care products or cosmetics, and even those many in many of these chemicals have made our lives easier because they've improved consistency of product shelf life, they've reduced flammability, there's not enough being recycled back into products or raw materials and some of those fantastic chemicals are now causing us some legacy issues that we now need to deal with.
It's also worth noting that we're producing about 12.7 million tonnes of waste generated by Victorian’s in 2015/16 of which 33 were sent to landfill. This is clearly something that's not desirable we know about the issues of landfills we know in Victoria at the moment about the issues with recyclables being stockpiled and the associated issues. So we really need to respond to these challenges and we need to respond to it as an EPA from the potential impacts on the environment at the end of the process but boy we need to get at the beginning of the processes so that we produce materials and products that are not going to have those impacts on the environment or that if we are going to produce them we can actually manage them and recycle them and reuse them again.
So we need to change the way we approach the development and application of new chemicals and the way that we design and market products and this is where green chemistry comes in. We also need a new generation of workers who research and develop these products for the future so that we remove these impacts from waste and it's something that we really need to pay attention to now, because the information about the generation of waste products and it's almost like a just a straight line up. We're not actually seeing a decline in our wastes and particularly in the environment. So through the excellent work of our academic institutions, such as Monash University, we're developing a new generation of researchers seeking to use green chemistry to eliminate the generation of waste at the outset by making chemical reactions more efficient.
Our guest speaker today Professor John Warner is one of the founders of green chemistry, co-authoring the defining text, Green Chemistry Theory And Practice. So for the students out there, clearly he's a great speaker. On behalf of the EPA and Monash university it's my great pleasure to welcome Professor John Warner today. He's president and chief technology officer of Warner Babcock Institute. He is the recipient of the 2014 Perkin medal. He's widely acknowledged as the highest honour in American industrial chemistry and he also received the 2004 presidential award for excellence in science, mentoring, and as well as the council of science society president's 2008 leadership award. He's recently been named one of the 25 visionaries changing the world. Professor warner is one of the founders of the field of green chemistry as I’ve said and has published nearly 300 patents, papers and books. You don't look old enough!
So it's my great pleasure and please join with me in welcoming Professor Warner today. Thanks John.
PROF. JOHN WARNER: I feel old enough!
Thank you, thank you very much. It's an honour to be here today with the EPA from Victoria and my friends at Monash University. You know to come here I don't feel I’m introducing this concept of green chemistry it's something that is well established here in Victoria, in at Monash and there's so many things that have happened in over the years here and having been here for the last couple days and speaking to the students and to the faculty at Monash and some of the people from local industry, the opportunities and the things that are just now beginning to happen as well are pretty exciting, and so it's an honour and a privilege to actually be here and be part of all this happening.
I do want to give a shout out I teach a class back in the United States and at exactly this moment in time, normally on Wednesday evenings in Boston, I would be teaching this class so my students are joining in. So, hi everyone!
I’m happy to be here and I do want to provide some kind of a background on green chemistry. So you know I feel a lot of people have heard of it and have their own perceptions of what it may or may not be and so I’d just like to give that background as we go through this but before, it's important to me that I always begin my presentations with a disclaimer saying that I don't claim some gifted insight. If I come off sounding pompous and presumptuous, like I have all the answers, I don't I have lived my life just like everyone else has had their lives and I’ve come to look at the world in a way that works for me.
I spent the first 10 years of my professional life as an industrial chemist working at the Polaroid corporation, doing chemistry. I spent the next 10 years of my professional life as a professor in the UMass system in plastics engineering and chemistry thinking about teaching chemistry and then I spent the last 10 years of my professional life in a small entrepreneur company focusing on inventions and patenting. And throughout the last 30 years I’ve interacted with many different regulatory agencies and government agencies from the perspective, working with the state of California during the Schwarzenegger administration and the federal government, the EPA during in the United States during their task reauthorization and what was going on there. The state of Massachusetts and the European union reach legislation. So as a practicing chemist I’ve kind of dabbled in a little bit all of the different aspects of the chemical enterprises which causes me to look at things from my unique perspective. So as I say things and things sound you know really good and you agree with them, well that's really cool. If I say something that sounds absurd, I apologize ahead of time, but it works for me.
We are living in a very polarized world you turn on the radio, you open up a newspaper, you look on the internet and you hear about this bad thing that's happening, this toxic thing that's happening, this dangerous thing that is happening, and over and over and over we're inundated with all this bad news. You know almost wonder who in their right mind in 2018 would want to be a chemist? Look at all the problems that happen, you know. It's almost like the game whack-a-mole you know a game where the little guy comes up and you hit it with a hammer and another little guy comes up. Well in the United States, the American Chemical Society… what is its mascot?
And so we hear about brominated flame retardants. Whack! You know we hear about Bis Phenol A. Whack! We hear about phthalates. Whack! We hear about nanoparticles. Whack! We hear about ocean plastics, and it's like we're exhausted this issue comes up we think about it and then before we really get to the conclusion of another issue comes up and went over there and over there. Part of us is terrified, oh this is scary part of us is saying “Is this just a bunch of noise? Is this real? Should I care?” And we practicing chemists who understand molecular structure are not quite sure. And if we who understand molecular structure are not quite sure, how is the general public supposed to respond to all this information? And so vendors and consumer companies are doing us no favour with chemical free products. Think about that a minute you can buy a tube of some magical material. I said material although that's an inappropriate word because it's chemical free. It's not even a material it's an idea! Okay so you can get this container of idea that somehow magically stops you from being exposed to the sun. My goodness and so this does not help us to actually say to society that it's about chemicals and that we need a chemical free okay? Water is a chemical, air is a chemical, we're in serious trouble if we had a chemical free environment and so let's just hope that never happens, all right? Maybe in the deepest of space somewhere halfway between Jupiter and Saturn but even there there's enough stuff that you can't even call that chemical free. So this isn't the answer but what it does is it creates this panic, this sense of despair, like oh my goodness what are we going to do? And this is what we've got to avoid.
What I have found in my in my history is that people who are philanthropic that want to write checks to support issues they kind of like despair. So people will write cheques to support despair but no one gets up out of their seat and does something in response to despair and so if we're really going to address these issues, what we can't do is go down the spiral of “oh my god, this is terrible, everything is horrible, everything is bad.” It is not.
You know we have a wonderful society, we have a wonderful world that is accomplishing many amazing things, we're curing people of diseases, we're feeding people who are hungry. There's so many things that the chemical enterprises are doing that we should be super proud of. This idea that it's all going you know a miss it's not quite really accurate, but it's still we have a responsibility to be focusing on this and making sure we're addressing these very important issues, but maybe we're not asking the right questions?
Maybe instead of saying oh geez this toxic is this dangerous is this bad I would argue that there is a much more fundamental question we should be asking, and that is “Why would a chemist make a hazardous mater in the first place?”
Let's assume that nobody wants to do that, okay? Let's assume that there are red dyes in commerce that cause cancer. Let's assume that there are plasticizers in plastic that cause birth defects. Let's assume there are monomers that are endocrine disruptors. Well, no one would want to just do that right? They would rather avoid it.
I have never in my life you know seen this mythical epic battle of good and evil industry trying to sell us toxic things because it's so profitable, and we the environmental activists Luke Skywalker trying to protect the world from Darth Vader. I don't I don't see that world. I’m sure it does exist at some level but really what the problem is that why are we making these materials? Maybe what we should be doing is instead of asking ourselves how we make molecules how do we make chemists? because really that's the people that are making the molecules.
Now I’m not a historian, I’m not a sociologist, I can't quote the history of chemistry ironically I’m a chemist. So maybe looking at how I became a chemist might have some instruction here okay. So I’m not a typical chemist that in the second grade had a chemistry set that I had fascination and dreamed of being a chemist. I had no interest in chemistry. If you can tell my accent, my accent is from Boston and I’m from a city south of Boston, Quincy Massachusetts, where two presidents of the United States were from, and in my opinion the greatest chemist who ever lived R.B. Woodward is from the city of Quincy. He would have gotten three Nobel prizes in chemistry had he lived long enough. but I never heard of this guy okay.
I grew up and I have a huge Sicilian-German family. I have I had 42 first cousins growing up within a one mile radius. We're carpenters, plumbers, electricians. We didn't really understand this concept of college. When I had a class in high school in English, on the second floor, I thought that was higher ed! I didn't know but all my friends were going to college and so one day you know I decided okay maybe I'll go to college.
I came home my mother cried my father was mad but I agreed to work full-time in the construction industry, 40 hours a week, paid my own tuition and went to the University of Massachusetts, Boston. But what horrified my family worse than the fact that I went to college is what I went to college for. You see I was a music major, but I played in a band called wait for it… “The Elements”
This had nothing to do with carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, there's a Rubik’s cube there's a glass ball, it's the late 70s, these were our elements all right and things were going pretty good. We were playing quite often, three nights a week at the best worst dives in Boston. We had an agent, we had a recording contract. So we were actually recording in a studio and things just felt to be going pretty well when disaster hit, and the drummer of the band, my close friend ends up being diagnosed with leukemia and over the course of six months he passed away.
All of a sudden my life is kind of turned upside down. Here I am a musician but what's going on here? So at university of Massachusetts like many universities even a music major has to take other classes. Shey have to take a foreign language they have to take a math class I had to take a science class oh my god I had to take a science class huh?
All right well I like biology, mitosis, meiosis, genetics, that seem pretty cool. I like physics, astronomy, subatomic particles, that seem pretty cool. So biology, physics, biology, physics and so in a moment of indecision I added it up divided by two, so I’ll take chemistry! Not because I had any interest in chemistry but I couldn't pick between biology and physics.
So I’m taking chemistry in this class and then I’m taking the lab for the class and this Professor Jean-Pierre Anselme comes walking in one day looks at me, music major, walks by and he looks to the student next to me goes would you like to do research? this was going on in my life I said can I come look? and I followed him into the research lab and everything changed.
All my life because I was marginally good at music I was an artist and the world had two types of people artists and scientists. Never the twain shall meet, but when I realised and I got into the lab and realised chemists did more than “PV = NRT” I said “Oh, you know they make things, they design things, they create things!”
I imagine ramming my brain through full of electrodes and composing a piece of music on a keyboard or designing a molecule. I bet you the same neurological activity happens that the word art and the word science have nothing to do with creativity. That bringing something into the world is a uniquely human thing and we completely confuse people by these words and once I realized that creativity and chemistry I’m one in the same I fell in love with it.
Next thing you know I’m publishing five papers as a teenager and you know peer-reviewed journals. I spoke at the national academy of sciences in Washington. In fact I made the cover of celebrity magazine with Boy George! Now if that's not a claim to fame!
One day the phone rings at my home and this guy goes “John we consider you Boston’s best and brightest college graduate, we want to do a story on you.” I go “no” I hang up the phone and he calls back a couple minutes later “No, really we want to do a thing” “No” and I hung up the phone. Well the next day I go to school cause I’m still working construction. So back then I wasn't as snappy dressed as I am now and so I’m working in my lab and the chancellor of the university bangs on the door and says “You will go get your picture taken.” so they grab me kicking and screaming and here I am surrounded by all these happy people and they do this story about this kid who's assembled over 100 molecules that never existed in the world before. Putting atoms in unique geometry that god never intended and I’m looking at this thing and go “I’m a chemist… how did that happen?”
Well through flotsam and jetsam, next thing you know I find myself at Princeton University working on cancer chemotherapy. I had a great group of people that I was working with I mean a lot of people but I was lucky enough to work with this amazing professor E.C. Taylor and we designed a solid tumour or anti-cancer drug that's now on the market by the Eli Lilly company. I played a teeny, teeny role in this thing but we had about 16 - 20 publications on different ways of synthesising it and looking at the enzymeology of it all and so just to show you the weird relationship between science and society.
I lost my mom to cancer back in the early 20s she was receiving a version of the drug that we had designed 15 years earlier as a graduate student. So strange way of society has a way of chemistry becoming very important.
Princeton has now a seven-story chemistry building built entirely on the proceeds of this one pharmaceutical drug so Princeton’s very very happy with that.
So things are going… you know so I never told my father that I was a graduate student. He would have killed me. I told him I was an apprentice so that was okay he came to my commencement. So when I graduated, that's my lab and all the messy stuff and everything going on in there, and he's kind of looking at a telephone. It's a different version than that, but one day I’m in my research lab at Princeton and the telephone rings and it's a senior corporate officer from the Polaroid corporation, the instant photography company, and he's kind of weirding me out. “Oh John, I’ve been following your career. I remember when you're at celebrity magazine, I remember at the national academy of sciences…” I’m thinking he's a stalker. He goes “Let's have lunch”. So I told six people where I’d meet him and when I’d be back and I go and I have lunch, and at lunch he offers me the job to head exploratory research at Polaroid. I say dude I’m 24 years old, I’m a medicinal chemist, I already had academic appointments to be a professor in medicinal chemistry. He told me how much he was going to pay me I said “When do I start?”
Next thing you know I’m working for Polaroid coolest place to be for an organic chemist in the United States. Edwin Land the founder of Polaroid is one of the most famous U.S. inventors. He got the Perkin medal in 1974 which I thought was so impressive until they gave it to me. Then how good can it be? But I had a real good time, we got tons of patents on different things, holography, medical diagnostics, film coatings, all different things and just had a really good time but what would a medicinal chemist do at a place like Polaroid?
Well you know it was it's interesting because I was very introspective and thought about the chemical enterprises you know and I said “You know over the last 200 years or so we've done amazing things in chemistry, right?” We really do some pretty cool things though like I said at the beginning the pharmaceuticals, the agricultural agents, the textiles, the electronics, but when you look at how we manufacture things everything is at high temperature, high pressure, harsh reagents right? and so I said “Why is that?” and I said “In nature everything happens at ambient temperature. Everything happens under room temperature, room pressure using mostly water as a solvent”. And what I realized is it had to do with how molecules interact with each other. Not the molecular structure of the molecule intrinsically but how the non-covalent forces interact.
I would love to give you a lecture on non-covalent derivatisation (NCD). If you want not one, not two, but three cures for insomnia, just have me talk about this thing. The license plate of my car is NCD so I really get into this okay? And one of the inventions that we worked on, we started, the Polaroid and the photographic industry started calling Warner Complexes… of all things and it was way of controlling the dissolution rate of small organic molecules in an aqueous film structure. And so in the United States if you have an invention that's going into manufacturing, you need EPA approval from the federal government. And so back then they were called low volume exemption pre-manufacturing notification. This is like 1989, 1990. Electronics didn't exist the way they do now, it was a big box of files that we put and we mailed to Washington DC and we waited, and we waited, and we waited. And ultimately the EPA rejected the application. Nothing to do with toxicity nothing to do with environmental impact it was just they never heard of non-covalent derivatisation they said “What is this stuff? Small particles, are you crazy? Molecular complexes, are you high?” They had no idea what I’m talking about so Polaroid stuck me on an airplane and sent me to Washington DC. Probably the first a second time in my life I’ve been on an airplane. I’m holding a briefcase of overhead transparencies and I’m going to go meet the EPA’s and talk about this thing.
So I meet the branch chief of the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics. This guy named Paul Anastas. Wait a minute… Remember the kid that I followed into the research lab with another music major?
It was him! I’ve known him since I was 11 years old, in fact we went to UMass together. At the time I was playing in a jazz band with his older brother and there's this older brother with the sax, there's me on the keyboard, my older brother, this guy here that's playing guitar. If you've ever been to Las Vegas, the big billboards in Las Vegas Legends of Rock, the dude who plays Rod Stewart is him! …has nothing to do with this talk just thought it’d be cool.
So anyways, I called attention to Paul and say “Well, wait a minute Polaroid has been manufacturing these things, all these solvents, all these energies, all these reagents, all this nasty and here we have now this aqueous, non-toxic, environmentally benign way of doing things. Shouldn't you be celebrating this? Shouldn't you be psyched that this is so much better?” But yes, it's different. Isn't anything better for human health and the environment going to be by definition different and if the EPA says we're going to make it difficult for you to do different, isn't that orthogonal to even your mission? Shouldn't we promote things that are good? So hold that thought.
At exactly that moment in time, while I’m doing this thinking about this from a productivity, a pragmatic industrial chemist getting things to market and understanding and navigating regulations and things like that. In approaching it from that perspective, my personal story takes yet another horrible turn. Things are going really well at me for Polaroid. it looks like I’m going to be promoted to a very wonderful position when disaster hits. My two-year-old son John dies of a birth defect. My son John was born with a disease called biliary atresia, where his liver was completely detached from his intestines. He can't metabolize water and soluble nutrients. So he was given emergency surgery at birth and by two years old we lost him. The night of his funeral, I’m lying in bed staring at the ceiling, asking myself what was something I touched caused my son's birth defect. I wonder, if heaven forbid, I got an award for something that ended up causing my son's disease and ultimate death. You know here I am a very successful chemist, you know I’m kind of familiar with books like Our Stolen Future that talk about the impacts of molecules on the environment and things like that. But I’m looking, thinking about I get my head bigger than anything, I’m so cool I’m so awesome I’m so wonderful, I’ve got all these awards, I’ve got all these patents, I’ve got all these things I’m just so awesome! I’ve synthesised all these molecules, probably the most prolific synthetic organic chemist my age in industry and I realised I had no idea what made a molecule toxic. How could I be so successful and have no idea what molecular structure has to do with toxicity? It wasn't that I didn't know the answer to the question; had I touched or done something that caused my son… It was the fact that I had absolutely no frame of reference to ask the question.
How is it possible? You know I start looking and there's tons of literature the field of toxicology. The field of environmental health sciences is constantly coming up with all these information about higher incidences, certain types of tumours and professional chemists, elevated breast cancer mortality on professional chemists.
Now I’m looking at this, report after report. How was it that four years of undergraduate, four years of graduate school, never had a conversation, never had a discussion, never had a seminar, never had a class, never had anything at the intellectual level of what it means to be a chemist on: How do you look at molecular structure and assess impacts on human health and the environment?
I felt there was something missing. There was a missing element in my career. I looked and every year in the United States, just in the United States, we graduate fifteen thousand undergraduates in chemistry every year. We graduate three thousand master's degrees three thousand doctoral degrees. In 2004 we started graduating more women than men as chemists. What could be more important to the field of chemistry than an understanding reproductive hazards? of an understanding of mechanistic toxicology?
Of all these things and yet not one university requires a chemist to show any proficiency on how to assess molecular structure and toxicity environmental impact. Why do we have red dyes to cause cancer? Why do we have plasticize to cause breast effects? Why do we have monomers stutter endocrine?
Do you think the fact that chemists have absolutely no training in what makes molecules do those things might have a little bit to do with it?
Now one could despair and say “Oh my god this is terrible!” or you could say “Wait a minute, therefore there is a path forward that we can perhaps start addressing these kinds of issues.”
All right and so what Paul and I realised is that we needed a science, not a policy, not a philosophy but a science to essentially have journals and textbooks and classes and conferences and workshops.
That's the way science works. A group of people do something they talk about it, another group does something and they build upon it. If we're really going to start doing this we needed to create a thing that people could focus on and so that was the birth of green chemistry.
So Paul and I, 20 years ago this book came out and actually we started writing it longer before that but this is the 20th anniversary of the book and I like to say had I thought anyone was ever going to read this book we would have written a better book.
But this book you know you open it up and you're waiting for something earth shaking you're waiting for something brilliant. You turn the page, yep that makes sense, yep that makes sense, yeah gee where the chemist should probably understand what makes a molecule toxic before they make it yeah making sense and it's just common sense and anyone could have done it.
So it's just strange that we wrote it at the right time, in the right place and made this observation that there was this missing element in the field of chemistry and I guess I’m shocked that over the last you know several years it's been translated I think into over 15 different languages. I’ve been to over 50 countries. You know I feel like Forrest Gump! You know Forrest Gump? You know I’m going around and I’m meeting politicians and presidents and ministers and princes and this guy and that was kind of cool actually…
But in this thing that anyone could have could have done, all right and so but what I’m most proud of with this is what I call the 12 principles of green chemistry and so the point here is you know I have I they're on their way I think they might be late but I have a five-year-old daughter that's traveling with me and if you happen to see her after this talk out in the hall you'll find that she speaks perfect English she will have a beautiful conversation with you she'll talk and she can talk your air off you talk back to her and she'll talk back to you and it's just like most five-year-old’s.
She's very precocious that way. You know in a couple years she'll learn to read and write more and then someday she's going to sit in a class and she's going to learn about nouns and verbs. Now ironically she's already using nouns, verbs, prepositions and adjectives why bother have a class once she's already using it. Well I would argue for Petra for where she's mimicking what she heard her parents say, she's mimicking what the environment has told her and so she's not really owning her English language. She's just getting by. But when she has that class, when she learns about sentence structure, when she learns about the parts of speech, she transcends all that and it becomes more with wilful intent she constructs her thoughts. Not only in how she communicates to other people but how she actually thinks herself.
I would argue we chemists since the beginning of time have done green chemistry. We wake up in the morning say “I prefer not to die today”.
The really insightful companies have realised that if you kill your customers that's bad for sales and so people know to not make toxic materials. But I would argue we do it like a five-year-old speaking English. We don't really have the sentence structure and the rules which is getting by trying to wing it and so the 12 principles of green chemistry is that part of body of knowledge, within this massive beautiful wonderful field we call chemistry, that focuses on anticipation of the impacts on human health and the environment, before you make the thing. Not years later or heaven forbid a decade later when it's in commerce or accumulating in some landfill somewhere. So that's the point of it and so to me green chemistry is the act of removing hazard from society. So yes there is an environmental component to it but that's not enough. If it's not successful in the market then it's just a whimsical idea on a bookshelf and so it has to have superior performance. It has to for a host of reasons have superior cost. We can't have this be some elitist thing that only the expense of products are safe and so for something to truly be green chemistry it has to have superior performance, superior cost and succeed on the market for those attributes alone and then oh by the way here's the sustainability the green chemistry component of it. So when we have regulations which are important, until we invent alternatives, we are passionately dependent on regulations but anytime we have a regulation that's forcing society to use a technology that doesn't really work or is too expensive. That in and of itself is not sustainable.
So if the chemist and the chemical engineer has the skill set to go back in the lab and invent something that has superior performance and cost everything is a lot easier. Doesn't solve all the problems but everybody's job gets just a little bit easier and so that's the point of this and so what I did is I ended up you know realising that this isn't a pushback in the market for green. We have a perception that green means it doesn't really work and it's not a and it's too expensive and so when someone comes to me says “You know John we have to go beyond green chemistry, we have to worry about performance and cost.” I giggled they didn't read the book because that's the whole point!
So to me what I realised is that the biggest barrier to the adoption of green chemistry technology is its invention. Do we have a workforce capable of doing this?
So at this point in time it was about 1996, 1997, I quit Polaroid and I went to the university of Massachusetts. Chemistry, plastics engineering, biochemistry and we started a PhD program in green chemistry. Everything that's in a normal chemistry program but added a semester class in mechanistic toxicology. Added a semester class in environmental mechanisms. Added a semester class in law and policy.
Over the next 11 years over 120 students passed through this program at different levels. Average time it took one of these students to get a job in industry: two days! The longest any student was on the market looking for a job was about a week because she turned down the first several job offers. I’ve been out of academia for over a decade I still get phone calls from companies “John you got anybody coming out of the program?” because they're world-class inventors that can compete with any chemist that's working at a bench inventing stuff but they actually have a clue about toxicity and environmental impacts and that's a differentiation because that's one of the single biggest impediments of success in the commercial marketplace is understanding that landscape. The way I look at you see is all the products and processes that we have available us today. The ceiling tiles, the carpeting, the electronics. I would argue that maybe 10 percent are truly benign. Ninety percent of them have something wrong, big or small, somewhere in between but we have a lot of work to do in improving over ninety percent of the things out there. Now if you do this thing called an alternative assessment and you look at something existing in the market somewhere in the supply chain that's going to improve things, you'll be successful maybe 25 percent of the time. But today in 2018 I would argue over 65 percent haven't been invented yet. It's not like people are hoarding these technologies for some profit reason. They literally don't exist so you can look at this in despair or you could say what better time in human history to be in the business of chemical enterprises. That all the fascinating things that we've had to do since the beginning of what we call chemistry and the inventions and the technologies and the intellectual challenges… we've just now become that much more relevant to the future of humanity and society.
Why is it that every twelve-year-old kid, eleven-year-old kid who's thinking about growing up saving the world, whatever that means to them is becoming a chemist on the top of the list? Who's going to invent the future, if not them? So what are we doing wrong in chemistry that all we are is usually represented as the problem. When in fact while I admit there are issues in our history that we have caused on any of these problems we're also the only path to a sustainable future. Okay and we need to realise that.
So how does green chemistry fit into that big picture of sustainability? Well the way I look at it the sustainability of this huge undefinable thing. To me my personal thing with all the words in sustainability: sustainability, sustainable chemistry, clean tech. All these nebulous words, people go “Gee what does that really mean?” and people are “Right and I think it means this.” and there's not a lot of good definitions around. Except when it comes to green chemistry there's actually a book, there's a definition there are 12 principles and so green chemistry actually has a fairly precise definition to it and how it fits is in sustainability you could talk about stable economics, agriculture, education, business, chemistry, all kinds of anything in human endeavour we can look at through the lens of sustainability. Sustainable chemistry is the part that works with the molecules and the materials but even that's pretty big right?
Chemicals policy can be sustainable chemistry. Remediation is sustainable against exposure controls. Green chemistry I see the subset, you know water purification alternative energy. So green chemistry to me is agnostic of the application. It is the building blocks so a solar energy device is a sustainable technology but if it's using toxic materials that in 20 years they're going to go into a landfill and everyone's going to be pretty sad it's still not green chemistry. So the ends don't justify the means green chemists we still get working. That doesn't mean we shouldn't continue to make the solar panels and do the best that we can. It's going to take time to invent these things but green chemistry is that little piece that is agnostic to the actual application and just looks at the building blocks before, during and after use. So it looks at the solvents, the catalysts, the feedstocks, the toxicity, the persistence, the energy. Well there's 12 principles of the green chemistry so I’d say there's 12 ways of breaking it down but that's the point it's no bigger no little than that it's just that little part that has to do with the invention of technologies. In tapping into the vast knowledge of toxicology and environmental health sciences to be on day one of an R&D project. To be part of the design criteria by wilful intent.
So where do products come from? When we look at product you know we take a molecule and we turn it into materials we call that basic research. We turn materials into components we call that applied research. When we turn components into devices we call that development. When we do a lot of it we call it manufacturing.
Well if you're in this business what do you worry about you worry about performance you worry about cost you're hey there's no difference my definition of green chemistry and what we've been doing in the chemical enterprise is it's kind of the same thing, it's just when we put environment in the middle of all this we start asking ourselves where are those molecules coming from? At the end of a product's life where is that molecule going? and as we manufacture it, sell it and use it who is the only person who can do serious mitigation of the impacts on human health in the environment? The inventor… and if the inventor doesn't have the knowledge to anticipate those impacts on human health and the environment and all we can do is worry about the landfills someday in the future.
So it's not the birth of ethics, okay? When I was a musician I had the clairvoyance to ask my a chemistry professor I said “Is chemistry dangerous? If I become a chemist will I expose myself or my future family to risk?” Think about the clairvoyancy you know what his answer was? His answer was “If you're asking yourself that question you should probably get another major.” “Oh okay okay!” and I never asked my question for a very long time. But it's not that that's a bad guy or anything it's that chemistry has to be dangerous. It's just what it means to be a chemist. But no problem we're going to wear gloves to protect our skin, we're going to wear masks to protect our lungs, we'll wear goggles to protect our eyes, we'll put filters and smoke stacks to protect the air, the land and the sea. We got it covered!
So that first slide with all those headlines… if you ask people the day before “Gee this is kind of nasty stuff, are we okay?” they go “Yeah we're fine we got all this mitigation going on what could happen?” Stuff happens all right. So the way green chemistry… obviously we are standing on the shoulders of herculean giants that have designed ways to mitigate risk via exposure control. Whether it's personal protection, whether it's you know filters and encapsulates and we depend on those people and will for the foreseeable future. Everyone in this room and well they're alive this is the way we're going to have to continue to do it but if green chemistry is a revolution it's simple, wait a minute, if we also use the tools of chemistry to focus on the intrinsic hazard, not to its exclusion, we're always going to need exposure control but everything a chemist can do to reduce the intrinsic hazard makes the job of exposure that much easier. So that's the point and this is a whimsical dream, I don't believe this is going to take this is going to take over a century to do. The chemical enterprises is three centuries old, we're not well we can't snap our fingers and tomorrow everything be green. This is going to require the innovation and creativity of thousands and thousands of chemists over the over the next several decades, but the point is to dream about a day where we don't have to have exposure control because it's intrinsically safe in the first place.
Industry immediately got this, so when the book came out in 1998 by 2001 most multinational companies had internal green chemistry programs. They get it okay if you got a nasty, if you got a safe, the cost associated with storing, transporting, treating, disposing, the regulatory costs, the liability, work health and safety, corporate reputation, community relations. Who in their right mind wouldn't rather mitigate all those costs by having something that is cheaper?
because it's already intrinsically safe. So from a fiscal responsibility perspective it just makes sense.
So what I did in the United States I tallied all the environmental regulations imposed by the U.S. federal government went back to Abraham Lincoln’s time, back in the 1870s, not a whole heck of a lot happened until 1962 when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, the birth of the modern environmental movement, the year I was born and all of a sudden things change.
Now I’m just a simple chemist, I’m not a mathematician or a statistician if I look at this long enough I start to detect a trend, all right, that each of these pieces these acronyms a piece of the federal legislation saying if you're using this that or the other thing you got to make sure it's not getting into the land here in the sea… and this.
From an industrial perspective is all cost. If you want to do business and you got to deal with this take out your wallet and what is it going to cost for the filters and the gloves and the lawyers and all the different things you got to do because all environmental regulations are about added cost, okay? Think about it.
A few years ago DuPont’s R&D budget was a billion dollars a year. That year their environmental compliance budget was a billion dollars a year. Most big companies their environmental compliance budget is the same as their R&D budget. They spend the same amount of money inventing their future as they make sure they're compliant with these technologies. So the CEO says “From now on I want all my scientists to only invent non-toxic environmentally benign, non-regulated things will just make so much more money.” Great! Not one of those chemists have had a class in toxicology, not one of those chemists have had a class in environmental mechanisms. You can want to do something really bad but if you don't have the skill set to do it, what do you do?
So this is a mistake to believe that this is an awareness issue, it's an ability issue and that's why what's so cool about being here in Victoria is that you've got the pieces in place already from Monash and from the people around here that have that competitive advantage, that have this thing going on. Pike Research, one of these analysis, claimed that green chemistry technologies will be hundred billion dollar industry by 2020. It already is, okay?
So this is already outdated, all right and so I look at the world through the lens of toolbox. The chemical enterprises has a toolbox, we have drawers for different chemical transformations, carbon bond forming reactions, oxidation reduction, if you name it we can do it. You can design a molecule it doesn't violate some fundamental law we can probably make it. But if you imagine the green chemistry toolbox of those transformations that are environmentally benign, non-toxic and unregulated, like I said that's 90 percent empty.
I believe an individual a company, a developing country will open that green chemistry toolbox first. It just makes sense, but odds are the draw is going to be empty. What do they do? You can't say “Stop everything! Let's invent a new technology!” you know?
I joke all the time, a lot of bureaucrats think that an invention fits on a Gantt chart you know “So now 2:30 on Tuesday we'll invent this.” You know that's just not the way inventions happen, right? You can drive for a very long time and come up empty. So what did the company do? They close the green chemistry toolbox, open the traditional, say “What they're going to cost for the gloves, for the masks, for the lawyers, for all this stuff…” put business and add that to the costs and go forward because they've got quarterly demands, they're going to be done. They don't have the luxury to just stop and try to invent something.
So the opportunity here from a moral and ethical perspective. The opportunity here from a financial perspective is to own technologies in the green draw because people want them if they're available, if they work better than the alternatives and if they cost better than the alternative, they will succeed in the marketplace. So I’ve spent 10 years at UMass and I did pretty well, I was called the country's number one science professor, I got a award from the president, I spent a half an hour in the oval office. I don't know which one of us looks more frightened in that picture! What did I do after this? I quit, I quit academia. Why? Well around that time there was this big furore about bisphenol A in plastic bottles.
I don’t know if you remember that the first country to address this was Canada. Canada banned BPA and nalgene plastic bottles and because I’m an amusing speaker, any science writer that's becoming sad with the story they're writing, they call me up and ask for a quote. “John say something so we stopped crying.” So I’m driving in my car my cell phone rings and pull over to the side of the road. Dutiful driver… and I’m in a parking lot of a grocery store and while I’m talking a pregnant woman comes out and she's fumbling with her bags and her keys and she takes her cash register and a neuron just exploded in my head! You know what drives me crazy? …is that you got femtogram quantities of exposure of BPA from plastic bottles. Yes, it's a serious problem but it's tiny when you think of thermal cash registered receipts.
If you hold on to a thermal cash register receipt for 30 seconds you will get more transdermal exposure in that 30 seconds than a lifetime out of drinking on a plastic valve because you've got free BPA in thermal cash register receipts. Ah! “Calm down John, calm down. We're doing a story on plastics.” But they mentioned in the article “Oh by the way John Warner says cash register receipts.” Oh my goodness!
Next thing you know thousands of websites: “John Warner reveals thermal cash registers have bisphenol A in them.” One of the biggest talk shows on national public radio in the United States, Tom Ashbrook On Point. I’m on that talking about: John Warner reveal that you tried to reveal… it was already there! and even this world-class journal, this world-class journal on the same page as a cat pushing a shopping carriage “John Warner reveals”. I’m looking at that and I said it's time for a change.
All my life I’ve spent inventing technologies that improve the sustainable, the toxicity of… no one ever cared. The one time, by accident, I’d identify a problem I get more recognition from identifying the problem than solving the problem and I don't know that's not what I want to do. That's not what we need people to do. We need people to focus on not the headlines but the actual solutions.
So had the luckiest thing I met Jim Babcock. Jim Babcock is the former chairman of Babcock and Brown investments people may know him. He bought into my vision enabled us to create an R&D firm that I pinch myself every day. It is a forty two thousand square foot chemistry laboratory with the most brilliant thirty people that I could find and every piece of equipment to synthesise small molecules, to synthesise polymers, to coat things, to fabricate things, to evaluate things and all we do is I call ourselves an invention fact we invent stuff. We don't publish papers in journals, we don't speak at technical conferences, we focus on the pragmatic, getting things to market. Our average cycle time from an idea in our heads to the commercialisation is usually twelve to fourteen months, which is pretty nice cycle time.
So the Warner Babcock institute does a lot of contract invention. Eighty percent of our businesses with other companies. Now when people come and put logos of companies they're working with and they look at me I just think that's not cool. So I’ll never talk about the companies that I’m working with. So about 150 patents over the last 10 years. They are assigned to the company so someone wants to go through and find my patent and see they're assigned to you can figure it out, but I’m not going to talk about that because that's not cool.
We've got some government grants, we've got grants with DARPA, with the Department of Energy, with NASA, that's really kind of exciting technologies that we're doing. We have a lot of technologies that we just license to other companies but what's most exciting is we have a material science company that has spun out and within that, we have a wood composite technology and an asphalt technology. We started a pharmaceutical company where we have an oncology program and a neuroscience program and so essentially just going to give you a sense of what does green chemistry look like from a commercialisation of technologies just to close up.
So we have a lot of pharmaceuticals ALS, Alzheimer’s, oncology, diabetes. We have construction material. Asphalt you know something as interesting as asphalt. In the United States there's one billion miles of asphalt pavement and the sun in the air oxidize the surface of the asphalt so it becomes brittle and hard. So what we do is we dig it up and we put it in a landfill maybe five percent will we use but because it's so brittle and hard it's not very usable so the landfill that is becoming filled and filled and filled with not only the asphalt from the pavement from old shingles to the asphalt shingles so I’m thinking about that and I’m saying “Why can't we have a street Zamboni?” I’m a hockey player from Boston, so essentially have this truck come down dig up the old pavement and just put new pavement behind. Have some additive that magically fixes that. All right? and again from Boston, Bobby Orr, the Boston Bruins, if anyone knows Boston hockey that's a very big thing. So we came up with an idea this additive and so on November 25th 2013 we dug up my driveway. A perfectly good driveway! My wife and daughter just came in and they're sitting in the back there and in the United States in November you have thanksgiving, where family comes over and we're like “Oh my god we just dug up a perfectly good driveway!” The workers come with my new additive invention, they they're laughing at me “John, you idiot it's seventeen degrees Fahrenheit. We have never paved at this cold of temperature. You're using over 65% recycled material. Can't be done. We're going to open up the truck, a big hockey puck's going to fall on your front lawn. We're going to drive away.” There was a guy from the department of transportation there with a clipboard watching and saying “Okay go ahead do it.” They open up the truck it comes out like sand! They scream like school children, jump on their bulldozers “Weeee” and here it is just a couple weeks ago. Beautiful! It outperforms typical asphalt. It is really, really cool and so within a couple months we had it, I think now last count twenty seven states in the United States have approved it for jobs and we would so quick we started the company called Collaborative Aggregates I wanted to call it Entropy Mix but people said “Oh that'll never work” said “How about Delta S?” “Oh that's good!” Don't tell them all right.
So here here's a strange picture. So this is me all right. I’m wearing a hard hat, wearing boots, I got a shovel, I’m standing in a steaming pile of asphalt. My cell phone goes off and it's clinicians talking about my Alzheimer’s drug and the results of some cognition studies with laboratory animals. Now most people would say asphalt, neuroscience… that doesn't seem normal. But wait a minute my model that we've been working on with the Alzheimer’s is these organic proteins that wrap around an inorganic particle. The molecule slips into the interface and controls the aggregation. What is asphalt pavement? An organic polymer wrapped around an inorganic particle. Delta S is a small molecule that controls you it's the same thing. You know we kid ourselves “Oh I’m a medicinal chemist, I’m a pharmaceutical scientist, I’m a cosmetic scientist, I’m a whatever…” A molecule doesn't know what industry it's in. So molecular mechanism once you see the commonality, what's really interesting when you're focusing on one thing, what happens in the peripheral, the opportunity for invention and so by positioning and inventions in innovations in this three-dimensional space so that you always have something in the peripheral vision. It doesn't make it crazy to be doing stuff like this.
We have a hair fabric shaping and toning thing-o. There’s this disease called psoriasis in which one of the cures, if you put your hands in your feet, or I did when I had the disease it was on my hands and my feet, in an ultraviolet light box and it cures it and it's a technology and what it does, I got really into it, crosslinks the thymine and DNA. So thymine is one of the DNA based pairs and it does this two plus two dimerisation reaction. It's a very bad mechanism that leads to skin cancer but it's a good mechanism that cures some diseases and very very efficient. So knowing that nature has constructed this efficient model I said :What if I put it in synthetic polymers? What if I put it in biopolymers?” So next thing you know I start making all these polymers, synthetic polymers and I find that if I put it in here and take one of those little carnival glow sticks and click it, it holds the curl. We end up, next thing you know, where we're controlling pleats in textiles, using this biomimicry approach to looking at how thymine responds to light we were able to make consumer products that hold shape within fabrics and textiles.
One of the products is Brazilian blow out of people who straighten their hair. They use this product that's called the Brazilian, it's actually formaldehyde. You literally embalm your hair. Now if we could curl hair with this other technology and then what else do people use formaldehyde for? Oh… Wood! In the United States, in North America, the number one construction material is what's called oriented strand board. OSB lumber. It's a wood composite adhesive of wood chips and most construction is built on this thing. In the news in the United States there's a lot about formaldehyde off-gassing and isocyanate off-gassing and so we did a 70-ton pilot scale run at a pilot plant with this novel technology. It outperforms in materials performance, on parity with cost without a drop of formaldehyde, without a drop of isocyanates. It's another technology that collaborative aggregates is commercialising.
Here's a strange story. One day I’m thinking about bugs and how when a bug sheds its exoskeleton, what it does is it can't grow and so it breaks off and over the course of a couple hours it turns hard and black again. Huh? Something in nature that goes from white to black. People colour their hair! So in the United States there’s a product that is sold over the market to colour men's hair. The key ingredient is lead tetra acetate. You can't buy a house in the United States with lead paint but you can pour it on your head! And so I looked at the process and it's a tyrosinase cascade that there's an oxidative process. So I found I didn't grind up dead bugs, I found some plant extracts and food grade materials, rounded up bought a bunch of gray hair, put it in and it worked! But there was dark brown, there was black and it's like all different colours I said “Oh man there's all these different colours…” So I called the vendor “So John, that's not one person's hair oh that’s a bunch of people's hair.” So I’m the greatest person in the in the company. So I jump in the chair and go “Hit me!” and my hair goes back to exactly the colour it was thirty years ago. Someone that had black hair that had gone grey it goes black someone who had brown hair that's going great it's gone. It restores the original colour. It's not a hair colorant, it actually restores the human pigment. It goes back and recreates the human pigment. It doesn't wash out, it doesn't fade and it looks real because each strand has its own nuances. Just like your finger has a fingerprint, your hair has a hair print. So we licensed it to a company that started and called themselves Hairprint and it's been online on sale at myhairprint.com for the last two and a half years and if you act now for $39.99 they'll throw in a knife! Okay yeah but it's non-toxic, environmentally benign.
Ocean plastics is a big issue. I found myself in 2015 on the centre stage of the United Nations General Assembly. My big head projected up there. What happened was two weeks earlier this show on tv, Whale Wars calls me up and apparently this show, my daughters watched it I didn't really know what it was but I guess they go into international waters and find illegal fisher people doing illegal things and they came up with 75 tons of an illegal fishing net and this net is a gill net or something and so they send a bunch of it to us and we had to separate the nylon from the polypropylene. We had to separate the heavy metals, we had to extrude it to a precise dimension. We didn't have the right extruder so we went online and we found blueprints when we built it and we spooled out and we made all the stuff and we ended up sending it to Adidas and standing beside me with someone from the board of directors of Adidas, holding up their 2016 running shoe made out of ocean plastic that was invented over a two week period at Warner Babcock, right immediately before that show.
We have an electronics… this is interesting. Oranges in the United States every personal product was orange scented a few years ago. Then the EPA realized that a percentage of the population is sensitized to limonene and so all of a sudden it wasn't in products anymore and so the orange growers “John what are we going to do?” and so I thought about again I can't explain why we do these things. So it's still a mystery that I don't want to think too much about but I said “If I can hydrolyse the limonene to fifty percent set of derivatives of what are called limenols and then I can make, put it in water and probe sonicate it using a probe sonication, I can make a flotation separator and I can separate out lithium cobalt from a lithium battery and it works to a hundred percent recovery, without using harsh reagents, without using explosive kerosene reagents but using water and limonene, lemon oil we can recover 100 of lithium cobalt from batteries. So we have pilot scale applications of that ongoing as we speak.
We have a water harvesting technology. The polymer that we have invented that when it's in one state it's hydrophobic, in another state it's hydrophilic and so this is a silly oversimplification but imagine a rowboat on the ocean and when the sun comes out the polymer on the underside of the umbrella absorbs water, okay? And then when the sun goes down it becomes hydrophobic and it rains pure water. So you can imagine the way that you can do these passive desalinations or in agriculture, passive purifications of water. We have it really slow happening over eight, nine, ten hour cycles. We have it super-fast, working in the shadow of a windmill. This capture and release mechanism for water purification. We have a BPA-free can lining for cans. It's really kind of a cool experiment you know that if you take a can of Coke or beer or something like that bless you, and you take a little bit of sodium hydroxide and water and you dip the can in it you'll find every can is actually a plastic bag and that you can see there's a whole plastic bag in within every can so when you hear about BPA and can lining, every can that has material in it is actually a plastic bottle with metal wrapped around it. It's a different way of saying it but it's actually coating the metal and it's polycarbonate that has the BPA in it and so we've invented a technology that's BPA free. Of course what started all this is cash register receipts so we've got that. But the point here is I would argue we at the institute are no smarter, no more creative, no more innovative than anybody else… but the mistake people say “Oh you know we're really busy people and we are busy! Time is money! We don't have time for this thing called green chemistry.” What I just described to you, twenty five people did over four years. I don't feel we're going so slow! Okay? These aren't publications and journals these are commercialised technologies. We're not successful in spite of green chemistry, we’re successful because of it. That's the magic here.
We live in constraints. Science is filled with constraints and so if you took a group of scientists and you said “Okay we're going to come up with some arbitrary constraint. You can no longer use a molecule that begins with the letter D.” Well they're going to get mad at you but they're going to say “Okay, well we can't use a letter D” …well anything that makes you different if all the scientists are reading the same journals reading the same textbooks going to the same classes going to the same conferences anything that makes you different gives you a competitive advantage.
Now not using the letter D in a molecule is kind of silly but what about using the principles of green chemistry? What about starting your design by trying to anticipate impact on human health and the environment? What you find is instead of slowing it down, innovatively you become faster but then when it's time to commercialise you navigate the regulatory process because you already thought of most of the things that are going to slow you down from that perspective. So it just kind of makes sense. So the issue is if this makes so much sense, if society wants us to do this, if industry wants to do this, if the universities want to do this, the next generation wants to do it, what's happening? Well we got to get the curriculum changed. We've got to get this to be part of what it means to be a chemist.
So co-located with the Warner Babcock institute is a non-profit organisation called Beyond Benign and Dr Amy Cannon, who's in the audience in the back here, is executive director of Beyond Benign and this organisation is focused on K-12 and university education. Finding ways to get it into the curriculum and so the website beyondbenign.org has hundreds of lesson plans for free! Not even in pdf format they're in word format and educators are invited to change it and make it their own and so it's cross-referenced with different standards. So we're not saying “You should teach this.” So when someone has to teach a certain subject we have information on how to integrate concepts of sustainability and what you find is that student performance in STEM education goes through the roof when you give it a meaning. If you're calculating the area of a triangle and then say “What is the difference between the area of this triangle and this triangle?” As fascinating as that sounds, some students say “Okay why am I doing this?” but if you associate it with deforestation or some kind of an environmental issue, they now see meaning for it. And they get up on their heels and the teachers are more excited and the students are more excited and so we find that this is a subversive way of teaching sustainability, while simultaneously improving student achievement in STEM education. But the most important program in my opinion is the Green Chemistry Commitment and that is asking universities, chemistry programs worldwide, to sign a commitment saying that well it's really hard right now because we don't have the curriculum we're going to find a way to make sure no student ever graduate from our university that we hand a degree in chemistry to that doesn't understand these principles of green chemistry. So far we have about 50 signers, maybe 45 signers. When we're gaining momentum and every year every day we get an announcement someone else is joining and so just really excited to be here in Australia, specifically in Victoria, specifically with Monash that is a leader in green chemistry and be able to celebrate the advances that you guys have done and just dream about the things that you can do in the future.
ANDREA HINWOOD: Thank you John.
I’m sure you'll all agree that that was quite inspiring and one of the things that we've been talking about in the environmental protection sector is how we actually turn people on to actually see the possibility and see the innovation of what we can do in the future and I think what John has presented today are some of the things we could do and importantly how critical chemistry is and chemistry education is to our disciplines and how we operate into the future.
Now we have a little bit of time for a few questions. for those of you who are live streaming you can submit your questions via Twitter using #MVSIseries so hopefully you've already seen that in the notifications and so does anyone have any questions you'd like to put to John?
We have roving mics.
Well I’m going to ask one.
Having been involved in education sector at the university level, one of the challenges in introducing some of the environmental impact or toxicology or whatever is that, and this is relevant to the chemistry discipline is that, they say they don't have room in the degrees and then so how do you get that room in the degrees without putting more years on? and then the other side is a declining interest in that particular area. So how I mean your presentation can turn them on but how do we turn on students to actually pick up these things as well?
PROF. JOHN WARNER: My immediate response is the inflexibility of the curriculum and the fact that less people are interested might be related. Because the world does change okay but chemistry education right now is at such an excellent level. We do such a good job worldwide training chemists to meet the needs of society but it's a tough job. Educators are doing research, they're teaching classes, they're writing grants and so even if people passionately say this is a really important thing that we should do well so on 30 other things that they have to do and so I don't believe that this pushback from the perspective is we vehemently should not do this, it's how do we put this in and how do we prioritise it because everybody else has their thing that they want to do too and so I completely understand that and that's why we feel it should be you know the beyond the night in the Green Chemistry Commitment is completely non-prescriptive, that every university has a set of faculty that see the world through their eyes and have every right to shape their program and their curriculum the way they want it. So all we ask is within the confines of how they see their world should be, find a way to get this in. Whether it's a standalone class at one university or at another university is just a seminar series that's required by the students or at another university it's integrated into the freshman laboratory, those organic levers. The idea is that if universities start doing this and with this part of this commitment, you know share these ideas and best practices, it becomes easier and easier for the next university to do it because we're sharing the best practices and so to be clear our goal is not to have every university in the world sign the Green Chemistry Commitment, our goal is to make it no longer necessary because everyone's already doing it yeah.
ANDREA HINWOOD: fabulous some questions over here.
thank you that was amazing uh tall really good and my question is about the cost so when you assess the cost are you assessing it in terms of its inherent cost or the cost associated with kinds of regulations because if it's in relation to the regulations and we start using less toxic chemicals then there's no need for the regulations and then the incentive to go to less toxic things are less because it will become more cost effective to go to the hazardous stuff and then if you go developing nations where the regulations aren't so tough then if the cost includes the cost of compliance regulations that constancy…
PROF. JOHN WARNER: Okay so regulations are an important component to motivation and it's almost a chicken and egg thing. If there weren't regulations, would people care so much about green chemistry? and absolutely there is a certain percent component of cost that is directly associated with regulation but it's not just that.
The thing about chemistry that's hard for people to understand is that when we learn chemistry we talk about percent yield. If you write a chemical reaction, A+B goes to form C+D and you want D and so you're going to sell D and if you got A+B going to make a hundred percent of D, as a chemist, you can publish in the highest impact factor journals because you've got this 100 percent yield. But if the process necessitates the formation of a by-product A+B goes from C and D, and C even if it's not toxic, if it's just waste that you've got to deal with, interestingly enough the cost associated with that is often very high. In a typical laboratory setting a, let's just say your average chemistry professor at a university, the amount of money they spend buying materials, a research lab at a company, the amount of money they spend buying materials is the budget that they see. The way we handle the economics and the finances, someone comes with a car takes all the waste away and it vanishes and the person buying the stuff doesn't see the cost of that waste, hazardous or not. And oftentimes there's the three to five times greater cost in getting rid of waste than acquiring the material in the first place. But usually that's somewhere in the overhead and those true costs aren't really felt and seen and in chemistry typically we focus on that hundred percent yield and don't think about that other thing.
An engineer who inherits that and has to design the process, they're going to roll their eyes and go “Oh my god what are we going to do with this other material?” but if the chemist is thinking about that and designing things and anticipating it… For example there's this thing Roger Sheldon came up with this concept called E-factor. It's an efficiency factor. In different industry sectors have different deficiencies and it's essentially an evaluation of how much waste is generated per unit product. The petroleum industry has been so good over the years of getting this well, it's less than 0.1 percent waste. Everything they make they use but the pharmaceutical industry on average pharmaceutical industry makes 200 to 500 pounds of waste per one pound of product, whether that's toxic or not, in the United States costs about two dollars a pound to deal with waste. So reducing the waste generated a manufacturing process by 10 percent of a sub-blockbuster pharmaceutical translates to about 150 million dollars a year in cost savings. But once the FDA approves the process, once you've got the manufacturing stuff locked in you're done. You can't change it. So the time to do these things is the moment the scientist puts pen to paper and starts thinking about it. That's when to anticipate these things not after. But if that person that's designing has no clue about those realities they're perfectly happy with their hundred percent yield.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Okay thank you for your talk really enjoyed that.
Ocean plastics were mentioned. I wonder if you've got any thoughts to share with us firstly on the creation of all biodegradable plastics, alternatively at the other end, how we actually deal with the waste?
PROF. JOHN WARNER: and that's a solution that needs many different… uh a problem that needs many different solutions.
There’s what do we do with the plastics that are out there now? How do we stop plastics from getting out there in the future? and so the way I look at it there's two things. First to create a different economic model so that they don't make it out there and somehow you know create biodegradable materials that when they get out there they degrade into innocuous by-products or we do some kind of a process where there's a reuse and it makes it to a facility.
It's an unmet need. Right now the Ellen MacArthur Foundation announced this big prize with the Prince of Wales just a few months ago. There's a huge prize for people to innovate and come up with novel new ways of solving this problem.
So right now we don't have solutions and we need every kind of solution that we can think of to do it but the problem is that the plastics that are out there now we're not designed to anticipate any way of dealing with them after use. So that's one solution we've got to focus on but we need to invent plastics that in the future are designed to anticipate that problem so that it's more cost effective and pragmatic and we don't continue to make that product. So it's something that has gained a ton of attention. Out of all environmental issues right now ocean plastics seems to be one of the… gets a great deal of focus at least in the United States. A lot of celebrities are getting involved in this and everything and from a technical perspective we don't have many solutions yet and so we need to have them.
EVENT MODERATOR: I've got a question from Twitter. I’m going to shorten this.
How does the average punter avoid being fooled by brands green washing their products?
PROF. JOHN WARNER: Okay greenwashing is a very serious issue and again that's one of the problems that has to go with education. If you ask a bunch of professional chemists is this greenwashing? they may or may not even really know how to figure that out but to me I answer this question with two different types of answers. One is if someone is lying, if someone is misrepresenting what is happening, we must deal with that very seriously and very quickly and find some ways that… and there are a lot of watchdog groups that the moment the company makes a claim they're descended upon and there's a lot of feedback of people saying wait a minute this isn't really true. So there's a lot going on but then I caution and I say there's a difference between misrepresenting the truth, to not doing enough.
If I were to give a science talk and never mention toxicity, never mention anything a group of scientists a group of people “Oh great talk! Wonderful, that's wonderful!” If during that exact same talk I mentioned “Oh I wanted to use this instead of this because it's less toxic.” I promise you every question at the end of my talk will be “Well isn't that toxic? Isn't that bad? Isn't that bad?” If I said nothing no one brings it up but if I mention a little, I got to do everything. Now everyone's looking at me where I’m failing. So where is the motivation of an organisation if the enemy of the excellent is the perfect?
We need to recognise there's a difference between solving some problem but not everything versus lying. All right? and so there are twelve principles of green chemistry. I myself personally have never worked on a technology where I’ve been able to address all twelve. I may be able to work on two or three of them. Now someone else may work on two or three others and someone else may work on one or two and then someone may come back… that's how science works but if we wait until we've got perfection nothing will happen.
So greenwashing, by misrepresenting the truth got to be dealt with but saying it's not good enough, well nothing will ever be good enough. Here's the sad reality there is no such thing as green chemistry. Everything we do with humans has impact on human health in the environment. Inaction has impact on human health and the environment. So we've got to accept the fact that that is our reality and then just be dedicated tomorrow doing better than today. Next year doing better than this year and this is a journey that we got in… toxicologists going to discover tomorrow something we thought was safe and we've got to be tapped into this knowledge and continue doing but if we say “Do nothing until it's perfect” we will do nothing and that's unacceptable.
ANDREA HINWOOD: It's probably our final question thanks
AUDIENCE MEMBER: It's great to see the increased activity around the circular economy and a lot of the large corporates getting involved. Last week VTT and Nokia are looking at recycling plastics Akzo Nobel and in Netherlands and a group of companies. Do you think the skills, are we developing the skills or bridging those skills to be able to keep up with all of these new companies and new models that are coming through with the circular economy or do you see a positive trend in in that respect?
PROF. JOHN WARNER: There's a positive trend. So again if you look at the diagram that I had molecules to materials to devices and stuff like that I feel that we as a society, product designers, people making products that are working as consumer-facing companies care greatly about this issue and they're trying desperately to create better products but the problem is all they have available to them is that what is in the supply chain and so as you try to invent a sustainable product, if your building blocks aren't sustainable, you can't weld, sew, glue bolt, create a sustainable product if the building blocks aren't sustainable. So while I would say there's been massive growth, every design school has sustainability programs, every company has chief sustainability officers, that the consumer-facing companies are getting it, but their hands are tied when an invention has to happen because you need the molecular sciences. You need the beakers and flasks people to be inventing solutions. We can only go so far with innovative product design until we have a set of materials that meet these needs we can only do so much.
So are we doing amazing with these programs that are asking product designers to do their job? Yes but oftentimes when I go to those things I’m the only chemist in the room and we need to change that.
We need chemists to be recognising that the world is getting to a point where it can go no further in this game unless they start adding new pieces to the puzzle.
ANDREA HINWOOD: Okay, look I think this has been fantastic I say it's reinvigorated me. I love chemistry although I call myself a bucket chemist so but it inspires me to look further and certainly as an organisation EPA will be focusing on the life cycle of products and so that we can deal with some of the issues that we have to in in a legacy sense.
So thank you John for a fantastic talk and for your insights our next environmental science series will be on the 7th of June and the topic is vulnerability of children to environmental exposures which have been touched on today so we'll be opening that up for registration shortly but please join me again in thanking John for coming and sharing with us today
When we think of the environment, pollution and waste, we don’t usually think about chemistry. Yet chemistry is fundamental to the generation of pollution and waste, and hence so is the way we teach, learn and use it.
This Environmental Science Series event focussed on the emerging practice of green chemistry – an increasingly coordinated effort by chemists all over the world to develop to environmentally friendly products that are cheap and easy to use. By applying green chemistry principles, scientists can create products in ways that reduce waste and harmful chemicals, use a great deal less energy, and demand less from our planet’s diminishing resources.
Prof John Warner of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry in the US, a leading expert and guest of Monash University, presented in Melbourne, exploring these issues. He was joined by Victoria’s Chief Environmental Scientist, Andrea Hinwood, talking about this revolutionary new approach to one of the world’s oldest disciplines. What does the future hold for more sustainable industrial practices, and just how soon might this future be coming? Professor Warner’s recent work in the fields of pharmaceuticals, personal care products, solar energy, and construction and paving materials are examples of how green chemistry principles can be immediately incorporated into commercially relevant applications.
Speaker bio: Professor John Warner
The President and Chief Technology Officer of Warner Babcock Institute, Professor John Warner is the recipient of the 2014 Perkin Medal, widely acknowledged as the highest honour in American industrial chemistry, as well as the 2004 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Mentoring and the Council of Science Society President’s 2008 Leadership award. Recently named one of ‘25 Visionaries Changing the World’, he is one of the founders of the field of green chemistry and has published nearly 300 patents, papers and books. Professor Warner is an adjunct professor in the School of Chemistry at Monash University.
Reviewed 29 June 2021