May 11, 2001
Green or sustainable chemistry will contribute to achieving sustainability in three key areas. First, renewable energy technologies will be the central pillar of a sustainable high technology civilization. The contribution chemists can make here is to develop economically feasible conversion of solar into chemical energy and the improvement of solar to electrical energy conversion. Second, chemical feed stocks must increasingly be obtained from renewable sources to reduce our dependence upon fossilized carbon and to protect the atmosphere. Third, polluting technologies must be replaced by benign alternatives. To attain selectivity in chemical reactions, while chemists employ almost the entire periodic table, Nature employs relatively few elements and succeeds with sophisticated reagent design. In this strategic difference lies much of the damage attributable to chemistry. Of particular importance is the role that elemental composition of a technology plays in producing persistent pollutants which are vastly worse than nonpersistent ones since they can work their way through the environment for long periods, even indefinitely, until they find a way to cause mischief. The lecture will review the two primary classes of persistent pollutants. Toxic elements form the first class; they are the prototypical persistent pollutants. They are usually relatively rare elements that man has collected from isolated deposits and spread throughout the environment through technology. In the worst cases, the elements themselves are manufactured. The second class of persistent pollutants is comprised of particularly stable molecules that often arise when elements such as chlorine that are familiar to life are used in technology in vast quantities in processes not found in Nature or used only to a small degree in Nature. In the new century, one of the most important challenges confronting green chemists is to move the elemental balance of chemical technology much closer to that of life processes. A significant step has been taken by the Collins group in meeting this challenge.
Dr. Prof. Terry Collins received his Ph.D. from the University of Auckland in 1978 and currently is Professor of Chemistry, specializing in inorganic and green chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University. His research group designs catalysts that activate the natural oxidant, hydrogen peroxide, to perform old processes carried out by chlorine or chlorine-based oxidants that pollute, to enable new peroxide-based processes. This work was recognized in 1999 by the award of the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award and in 1998 by the award of the Society of Pure and Applied Coordination Chemistry (Japan). Professor Collins is a Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar and a Fellow of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Professor Collins' group also works on developing molecular magnetic materials.