Green chemistry, blue-sky crazy stuff and learning to <3 carbon dioxide (CO2)
Successful science is where you find it, according to chemist Philip Jessop, a professor in the Department of Chemistry whose revolutionary contributions in the areas of catalysis, CO2 chemistry, and green solvents have resulted in technologies that address human needs while reducing environmental impact. He is also the technical director of GreenCentre Canada − a technology transfer agency which brings such technologies to industry. Recently, Tim Lougheed sat down with Jessop to talk about his career path and how his life became “green.”
You hit the Canadian scientific job market in the early 1990s, at its lowest ebb. How did you fare?
I applied to about 500 places, got about 300 rejections and 200 I never heard back from. So when my students tell me, “I’ve been rejected from three jobs,” and I say, “Let me tell you what I got.”
What did you do?
I ended up in Japan. I worked with a researcher named Ryoji Noyori, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2001. I can’t say he got the prize because of my work, but he certainly helped my career.
Why did he take on a newly-minted Canadian chemist?
About twenty of us got hired for this centre he was setting up and we were on loan to him for five years. His mandate was to do crazy stuff − things you would never give to a graduate student because they’d probably never get a thesis out of it. So he told me, “Why don’t you work on supercritical CO2?” I didn’t even know what supercritical CO2 was. I had to go to the library to look it up.
So what is supercritical CO2?
We all know CO2 is a gas at warmer temperatures, and it can be a solid – dry ice – at lower temperatures. At just the right temperature and pressure, though, it turns into a fluid. That’s the supercritical point.
Did you get it to do any of the crazy stuff Noyori wanted?
Nothing really worked in CO2 for me until I accidentally hydrogenated it. It interacted with hydrogen well enough that I got some nice publications out of it. That helped me get a job when I came back to North America in the mid-90s.
You owe your career to cO2, the greenhouse gas that everybody loves to hate.
It’s not just that I like CO2, although CO2 is my favourite molecule. I also look at what’s needed. Everybody in green chemistry is trying to help the environment. Supercritical CO2 is an awfully green solvent.
What do you mean by “green”?
It’s always in comparison to something else. The thing you come up with — does it cause less environmental damage than what’s being done now? That’s what most chemists mean by “green.”
Are products touted as “green,” “sustainable,” or “environmentally friendly” more about advertising than chemistry?
It’s a difficult question because there are two problems. First, these products are often not green and the public never really figures that out, because finding out if something is green is not trivial. The other problem is that they’re usually shoddy products – because it’s got the word “green” in it, people are tricked into buying poor quality products they wouldn’t ordinarily buy. So then the public gets irritated and say they’ll never buy anything that’s green anymore. And it’s not just happening on the consumer side, it’s happening in academia. Papers are coming out in reputable journals, saying here’s this green way of doing something, and it’s not green at all.
Peer-reviewed scientific publications fall for greenwashing?
Assessing whether something is actually green, compared to what it is replacing, is not trivial. We all have a tendency to see the one attractive feature and think that must override everything else. Sometimes it might, but sometimes it doesn’t. And almost none of the chemists in the world have the skills to do that calculation. All these papers go out in the literature, lots of papers saying here we have this green technology because it has one feature that is appealing. They don’t look at the other features.
Where do genuinely greener solutions come from?
That’s what I see as the real role of green chemists in academia. We are allowed to try stuff that may never work. I think we have a moral obligation to use this opportunity that society has given us, to try big leap-forward crazy ideas and if any of them work, it will be a bigger payoff for society and of course for the environment. Industry chemists, on the other hand, have an obligation to do something that’s going to pay off for the shareholders in a pretty short time. They can’t do blue-sky crazy stuff, but that is what’s going to give the biggest reduction of environmental impact.
Is industry as receptive to crazy stuff as Noyori was? Don’t they really only care about the bottom line?
When we offered this technology to one company, they actually gave us an itemized list of their requirements in three priority levels – the requirements it must have, those that are merely important, and those that are wishful thinking,low priority requests. Price was in the third category. I was shocked. The requirements at the top of their list were low ecotoxicity and quick biodegradation.
So people in industry have some sense of obligation to the environment?
The stereotype is that all they care about is cost, cost, cost. It’s got to be economically competitive, and if it helps the environment, don’t bother telling us because we don’t really care. They do care. Steelcase Canada, for example, used to use organic solvent-based sprays for painting furniture. With those old sprays, the room was full of organic vapour. You light a match and the thing’s gone. A few years ago they changed to dry powder sprays and they’re saving enormous amounts of money on their operations. Suddenly their insurance rates dropped dramatically, and the environment benefits, too.
With examples like that, why don’t we see more of these genuinely green solutions being used in the real world?
We academics have, in general, no idea what industry wants, and often industry has no idea what we’re playing with. We have to have something like GreenCentre Canada, or variations on that theme for other disciplines, to bridge the gap between academia and industry.
Will the success of green chemistry ensure that your students don’t have to send out 500 applications and then flee to Japan?
Students ask for green chemistry once they know it exists. The next step is getting new green chemistry to market. That’s crucial. All my students sign a form saying that they understand commercialization is the goal for a lot of our research, and they have to sign confidentiality agreements. They know right from the start we’re going for commercialization. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, but that’s okay. They get to read the patent applications, and they’re working with the lawyers. In fact, three of my past students have gone on to law school to become patent lawyers. Others are industrial or government researchers in several countries, but not Japan! All this focus on practical solutions to industry’s chemistry problems makes the students more employable.
Profile by Tim Lougheed
(e)Affect Issue 4, Fall 2013