Advancing Green Chemistry

Imagine a world where industrial manufacturing’s toxic solvents and chemicals were replaced with sugar, starch and sunlight. Imagine pure, clean water and air leaving factories, workplaces free of “hazmat” gear, polluted sources brought back to life and farmers transitioning away from highly toxic conventional chemical pesticides into an era of truly sustainable agriculture through the use of bio-pesticides. The emerging field of green chemistry is making these visions a reality with innovations for a sustainable future.

In December 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced they would be distributing $20 million toward green chemistry research as a part of their Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program. The grant would create two $5 million academic Centers for Material Life Cycle Safety and two $5 million Centers for Sustainable Molecular Design that would allow scientists from a wide-range of disciplines to develop “improved methods for the design of next generation chemicals”, which in turn could potentially alleviate the widespread amount of rising environmental and health issues being linked to common chemicals and contaminants, including the emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, water pollution, cancer and abnormal childhood neurological and reproductive development.

“The aim of the center will be to develop methodologies and practices for materials design which applies a holistic perspective,” the EPA stated. “This holistic approach to design, which considers all the stages of a material’s life cycle, provides an opportunity to produce materials which minimize, and preferably eliminate, any associated potential environmental and human health impacts that may occur during the life cycle.”

Surprisingly, on April 6, the EPA made a sudden decision to cancel the $20 million grant less than three weeks before the April 25 application deadline. No explanation was officially given for the cancellation, however, Kelly Widener, Assistant Director for Research Communications at EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research, told Chemistry World that: “‘Given the new and emerging research areas in the request for applications (RFAs), EPA determined that it was necessary to further explore these research areas. On rare occasions, solicitations are cancelled or revised when necessary to ensure the integrity of our grants process.”

The $20 million in funding would be “one of the most significant sources of dedicated support for green chemistry so it is a blow to the community that the call for applications was cancelled without explanation,” said Evan Beach, a green chemist at Yale University. “Everybody was in the home stretch on writing. The preparations took several months.”

Terry Collins, a green chemist at Carnegie Mellon University and a pioneer in the field, said the announcement “stunned” him. Collins was on a team of green chemists and other environmental scientists that had, like Beach at Yale University, been working for months to put together a funding proposal.

“For the EPA to treat so wastefully the field that holds most of the keys to a good future for the relationships between chemical products and processes and the environment and health is mystifying to say the least,” Collins added.

Eric Beckman, a chemical engineer at the University of Pittsburgh who was also working on a proposal, said he’d never seen a government agency pull the plug on a request for proposals so close to its deadline in his more than 20 years in academia.

“My reaction is shock that it happened and total dismay that what appeared to be a novel program was cancelled without warning or explanation,” Beckman said.

After days of speculation and protest amid the EPA’s silence, the agency made an official announcement on their “@EPAResearch” Twitter account April 11, stating that they “will be reissuing the #greenchemistry RFAs in Summer 2012…Given the new & emerging research areas in the RFAs we determined it was necessary to further explore these research areas.” Though uplifted that the federal funding will resume, scientists are still left puzzled and uneasy with only a vague explanation offered by the EPA for the delay.