Scientist Profiles: Prof. Dr. Felix Ekardt

Editor’s Note: Prof. Dr. Felix Ekardt is a interdisciplinary sustainable scientist in scientific fields legal studies, philosophy and sociology. He manages the Research Unit Sustainability and Climate Policy in Leipzig and Berlin, Germany, and gives statutory advices on EU, national and state level. Prof. Ekardt presents around 60-70 scientific and popular lectures nationally and internationally and is currently working on projects based around a wide range of topics including social energy, sustainable corporate law, human rights and environmental law, municipal climate protection and development of national climate protection legislation. We are delighted that he took the time to speak to us!

1) How do you understand the term ‘sustainability’?

Sustainability means a way of life that can be maintained on an intertemporal and global scale. This is a completely new challenge in human history since we have a traditional tendency of focussing on what is going on here and now. The typical example of a sustainability issue is the energy and climate transition.

2) For a sustainable transformation, we need law changes and a different legislative framework for the markets. We are not allowed to make use of all the oil, gas and coal that exists, if we want to prevent a climate change. The German energy transition (Energiewende), which is actually a power transition (Stromwende), is necessary for a sustainable development. Can the German approach be a role model for other countries?

In December 2015, states across the world have agreed on a new climate agreement. The Paris climate agreement lacks ambition in most of its details and as such is disappointing. At the same time, it contains a very ambitious target which is unfortunately frequently overlooked. It determines that global warming needs to be limited to well below(!) 2 degrees Celsius, and even undertake efforts to limit it 1.5 degrees Celsius. For an industrialized country such as Germany with high per capita emissions, but on the bottom-line for every country, this requires zero greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuels in power, heating, fuels and material use by around the year 2038. This is to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius according to the data of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Taking the limit to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the global phase out of greenhouse gas emissions would need to be reached by the end of the 2020s. This applies if assuming that technologies to achieve negative emissions are not technically feasible or extremely dangerous. The climate debate in Europe and the world largely neglect that.

Taking the described temperature limit as point of reference, key governance deficiencies in the factual energy transition become apparent. The energy transition, as currently implemented (almost anywhere), is basically a power transition. Heating, transport and material use of fossil fuels e.g. fertilizer (and areas of climate emissions beyond fossil fuels which mostly occur in the agricultural sector) are neglected. Policy measures taken so far in Europe and elsewhere are not in the least enough to induce a speedy and complete phase out of fossil fuels – even in the power sector and especially not in other mentioned sectors. Not only other sources of emissions, but also other environmental problems tend to lose attention. Considering per capita emissions, industrialized states are very far away from zero emissions. In the EU, the statistically achieved emissions reductions – from very high levels – since 1990 are surpassed by emissions simply shifted abroad. This becomes apparent if summing up imports and exports. Because the emission-intensive production sites of modern global economy are increasingly relocated to emerging economies.

It is however ambiguous, whether environmental protection will be successful if purely based on technical solutions. Taking into account the speed of innovation so far, it seems not very probable that a transformation to increased renewable energies and energy efficiency will reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero in 10 or 20 years. Sufficiency is also needed.

3) You describe a double vicious circle, on the one hand between citizens and politicians, on the other hand between customers and companies, that has to be interrupted. Our economic system is based on self-interest, egoism and competition, the greed for more material wealth is not limited. In my opinion, this is a serious problem for sustainable development. Shouldn’t we try to increase awareness and mindfulness, to succeed with a social transformation based on cooperation, altruism and sufficiency? As a human being with freedom of will, we have the gift of controlling our emotions and behaviour. I think we also have the responsibility to make use of that. Do you agree?

Based on pluralistic methodological approaches, one can show that non-sustainable and non-sufficient behaviour has various sources in different actors and that it should therefore be avoided to focus relevant aspects of behavioural science only. Pure knowledge of facts has proven to be only a small part in triggering behaviour. More important is an understanding of how actors are interdependent. The behaviour of citizens for example is influenced by politicians and vice versa, the same goes for the dependency between enterprises and consumers. It is part of a certain economic system to constantly acquire customers that buy more and new products without caring about the means of production and that are inclined to find products which are produced socially and ecologically exemplary too expensive. But it also requires enterprises which offer – or in fact do not offer – customers products to trigger needs and thus constantly increasing their profits, ergo keeping up the spiral of growth and high resource intensity. It would be misleading however to simply talk in Marxian tradition of exploitation and estrangement, particularly since many liberties have been installed in modern societies at the same time. As suggestive as many offers might be, production and consumption are not forced by just one side and many individual suppliers and demanders make their contributions. The role of factors – determined by all above mentioned methods – such as self-interest, the dilemma of public goods, path dependencies and conceptions of normality as aspects of motivation in this interaction, especially looking from an economic point of view has been described by many. Two aspects crucial to comprehensively explaining the reluctance to act on sufficiency are however frequently neglected.

One of which are common conceptions of normality as shown by many. Despite all intellectual recognition, we continue living in a high-emission world. If setting aside this article, the next meat buffet, the next car drive to work or the next holiday flight is not far. These things are just ordinary nowadays, as long as one can afford them financially. Dismissing flights as a whole might lead to social pressure and an image as “weirdo”. Lifestyle is also relevant to social standing if. in a current situation. the social surrounding requires a certain apartment, cars and travels in order to belong. This is increasingly true for countries outside the Western hemisphere, which follow the role models in industrialized countries. Especially decision-makers in politics and enterprises are often used to entertaining a lifestyle that includes frequent flights, opulent buffets, global friendships, regular meat consumption, and now they are required to think of abolishing it (with foreseeable results). Conceptions of normality vary significantly at the moment, however the fact that they develop them (unconsciously) in order to simplify ordinary activities seems to be a biological invariable.

Human emotions are likewise relevant for all of us, including entrepreneurs, politicians, civil servants etc. Geographically and temporally distant, invisible, in highly complex causalities which make it hard to imagine damages due to climate change yet caused by an ordinary activity are usually not emotionally accessible to people (citizens, politicians, entrepreneurs).

All aspects are to be encountered both in the individual and in structures – there of course in humane – forms. “Self-interest”, “conceptions of normality” or “emotions” are not only visible in individuals but are also shaping higher structures; so in the end, retention of power or accumulation of capital are collectivized variations of self-interest and path dependencies.

Non-sustainable behaviour is therefore easy to explain. At the same time, these findings hint at the fact that a fundamental turn towards sustainability and specifically sufficiency might be very hard to achieve, as there is reason to assume that emotions are part of a core biological configuration which cannot be eliminated. It will however be essential that different actors will move at once – and that aspects which can be changed are in fact changed, e.g. self-interest calculations or path dependencies, which can be influenced through new political frameworks such as levies or caps on fossil fuels. Pricing will also support a change in conceptions of normality. However, it will hardly be possible to achieve change exclusively through political measures, because of the interdependencies of actors; it is of particular importance to have someone demanding new policies. The central piece however is not just discourse, but practicing new and more sustainable normalities.

4) What has to be done to perform energy transition successfully?

Approaches to environmental protection so far usually aim at regulating individual products, plants or actions. To do so, mostly commands or prohibitions are formulated, e.g. standards for emission limits for cars, houses or products.  The problem here is firstly that the measures taken are not even close to being fit to comply with key political targets like the 1.5-to-1.8-degree temperature limit of the Paris Agreement, stop biodiversity loss, stop of degradation of ecosystems and soil, stabilizing of nitrogen cycles etc. This implies the mentioned speedy and complete phase out of fossil fuel use and decreasing land use. Secondly, the focus on single products, plants or actions contains the inevitable disadvantage that it will lead to unplanned shifting effects. Environmental problems are shifted into other countries and possibly to other sectors. Well-insulated houses in the EU might reduce the heating bill, enabling in turn even more climate-harmful holiday flights. If the use of crude-oil containing mineral fertilizers is reduced in the EU, it might either induce even more intensive agriculture elsewhere (to produce products which are then imported into the EU). Or an increased use of green genetically modified organisms (GMO) which are not compatible with small-scale farming as a solution to various environmental problems. Thirdly, with regards to ecological strains or resource problems, the individual car or one round of fertilizer is not the core of the problem. It is rather the cumulation of many of those processes. Nothing is solved if an individual car becomes more efficient, but then more higher-performing cars are on the road, also due to an increasing wealth (rebound effect).

Therefore, in looking for more effective policy instruments, a key starting point should be the core factor of several environmental problems, with are fossil fuels. They are, especially through fertilizer, key driver of modern agriculture, and address as such not only climate change but also biodiversity as well as disturbed nitrogen cycles. The target according to the Paris Agreement is therefore the total phase out of fossil fuels of the markets in all sectors (also in transportation, heating, agriculture) gradually in 10 or 20 years. If done with a global or at least a European cap (absolute quantity control), this would lead to far-reaching consequences. This system would not in the least resemble the existing EU ETS, because it would achieve a strict cap (including the elimination of old certificates) as well as a complete inclusion of fossil fuels. Justification of this approach is primarily its ecological effectiveness and not its possible cost-efficiency (while there is a good chance it might also be achieved).


Renewable energies, energy efficiency and sufficiency would replace fossil fuels for power, heating and transportation. The amounts of fossil fuels on the market would simply decrease until they will finally not be available on the market anymore in 10 to 20 years. The increasing scarcity will lead to dramatically increasing prices. The materially and geographically broach approach is crucial for the effectiveness of the instrument – especially to avoid rebound and shifting effects. Conventional agriculture would gradually see a transition to ecological agriculture. Also, the production of animal products would become less attractive overall; production of animal products would increasingly shift towards low-emission pastoral farming. Consequently, also less production quantities and decreasing disposal rates.

It is crucial to tax imported goods with the additional costs of energy and land-use pricing as eco tax; exported goods should be exempt at least partially from the additional costs. Those so called border adjustments will prevent that production, for instance steel industry or production of animal feed, is moved outside the system.

5) We need new role models for a paradigm shift. Matthieu Ricard said in an interview with Barbara Bleisch that the messenger has to be the message, when he/she wants to be convincing. So do you live sustainably?

Role models really matter a lot. I do not have a driving license, I am a vegetarian since 1993, I do not go on holidays by plane, even on a professional basis usually I do not go by plane. I used to live in a very small flat until the age of 40, I do not have a cell phone etc. pp. But we all, including me, have to improve our sustainability performance.

Scientist Profiles: Prof. Rafael Luque

Editor’s Note: Prof. Rafael Luque leads the Nanoscale Chemistry and Biomass/Waste Valorisation Group at the University of Cordoba, Spain. He is also member of the editorial board of prestigious journals, Editor-in-Chief of the Porous section of the journal Materials, Editor of Journal of Molecular Catalysis A: Chemical, and Series Editor of Topics in Current Chemistry (Springer). Prof. Luque will be a keynote speaker at the International Symposium on Green Chemistry 2017 next month in La Rochelle, with a talk titled Benign-by-design methodologies for a more sustainable future: from nanomaterials to heterogeneous (photo)catalysis and biomass/waste valorization. In addition, he will join NESSE on May 18th for a special session at ISGC 2017: “Thriving Careers and Sustainability: A Panel Discussion”. For more information, please visit  

When did you know you wanted to dedicate yourself to chemistry?

I was always impressed by the fact that chemistry is ubiquitously present in our daily life. It is in everything we do and see, and from my perspective as an organic chemist, I would say it is even part of ourselves. I was very curious when I was a kid about common everyday observations that I related to chemistry. When I started my PhD studies I also became very interested in green chemistry, in the sense of trying to work on advances towards a more sustainable society and ways of living.

What is your current research focused on?

Throughout the years, we have been able to branch out the scope of our research. Nowadays we are focused on three different platform technologies.

  1. Nanoscale chemistry – We design our own nanomaterials, supported metal nanoparticles, and quantum dots for different applications.
  2. Application of nanomaterials – This work is done mostly in the area of heterogeneous catalysis and photocatalysis, and more recently we are developing photoluminescent materials. We are also working at the interface of chemistry and biology by developing bioinspired functional materials for biologically-related applications.
  3. Flow chemistry – We work on continuous flow processes that are scalable for chemical industry. In addition, we also work on biomass and waste valorisation. Here we utilize bio refinery concepts in order to further evaluate the possibility to convert residual feedstocks into chemicals, materials, and fuels.

What would you say your first approach to green chemistry was?

Originally I was not quite aware of it. When the concept started in the 90s I was a high school student. My first major connection with it was during my Postdoc with Prof. James Clark at the University of York. Working at the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence gave me the opportunity to understand what this concept can provide to society, industry, and research in general. I was fascinated by the possibilities that we have improve the future for upcoming generations by reducing our environmental footprint.

Rafael Luque-2

As a professional in academia, how do feel education has changed around the concept of green chemistry? What do you believe are the possibilities in this field?

I think education is very important for the formation of future generations. For green chemistry in particular, education is a tool to help new generations understand the possibilities we have to improve our way of behaving, working, and living. I would say that green chemistry is not limited to the scope of chemical education, the core values of it reach out to a more general audience. I think this is a critical aspect that needs to be taken into account to provide social awareness of what the beneficial effects of green chemistry are on the environment with concrete examples, such as how we can replace current products derived from petroleum by more sustainable products.

With regards to formal education, the curricula have changed, although this might be at a rather slower pace.  All over different countries you see courses that either incorporate the 12 principles of green chemistry, or tackle more specific topics, such as sustainability in processes for fine chemical production, catalyst synthesis, polymer production, etc. The possibilities are endless, and we could spend a long time speaking about them. Using waste as a resource for many potential products that we can extract and harvest, design of new materials, catalysts, continuous flow processes… All of these are areas of opportunity both for green chemistry and chemical education.

You have managed to develop start-up companies in addition to your work at the University of Cordoba. How did your introduction into entrepreneurship occur?

At some stage the research and the topics you focus on can somehow steer you in different direction. In our case the key factor that motivated the creation of our start-ups was the fact that, in addition to working on fundamental research, we also conduct applied research. We managed to succeed in reaching the market in terms of prototypes and products that we proposed, in order to provide alternatives for the chemical industry of the future. This eventually led to the development spin-off companies from our work, so far three of them. One of them started out as a collaboration with the University of York in the UK, and two other companies in Spain. We are currently working on creating a new one in China. The possibilities in this case are always related to the broadness and the applicability of our research. In this case, we had significant expertise on the field, and this led to incurring in an entrepreneurial path.

We often hear about professional accomplishments, but often we overlook the struggles that they represented. What would you say are some of the challenges you have faced throughout your career?

I have had several challenges in my career. I come from a traditionally deprived region in the south of Spain. Starting my research group from scratch back in 2009 was complicated in terms of funding, access to resources, students, etc. It required a lot of dedication, especially in the middle of a big recession, which may have been a different situation had I been in a different place.

From a personal perspective, I come from a modest family. During my studies, I had to put a great effort to try be the best in my class in order to qualify for fellowships to pay for my studies and then for my PhD. My advice to young scientists is to always bring motivation and passion in whatever you do. Particularly, resilience is a quality that I feel missing in some students these days. It is not easy to receive a lot of funding at the beginning of your career, regardless of how great you/your ideas are. In the past I would submit twenty proposals to get one, but I never lost hope, never lost my passion and my will to keep pushing that will bring you to eventual success.  It is a learning curve that requires time, but a self-driven character and resilience are very helpful along the way. Fighting and being able to come back stronger after a rejected paper/proposal/application is the way forward!!

Scientist Profiles: Dr. Edith Lecomte-Norrant

Editor’s Note: Dr. Edith Lecomte-Norrant is the current Head of Innovation/Technology/Sciences at UCB Biopharma in Belgium, where she works introducing new methods for industrialization of pharmaceutical processes. She holds a PhD in Chemical Engineering from ENSIC-CNRS, HDR in Chemical Engineering, worked six years as a National Researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France. Her work includes the submission of 9 patents, 14 articles, more than 200 technical confidential reports, and presenting more than 35 oral communications at different international conferences. She has worked in several private companies and has international experience in R&D and fine chemistry/pharmaceutical manufacturing plants. Dr. Lecomte-Norrant will be a keynote speaker at the 2017 International Symposium on Green Chemistry (ISGC) in La Rochelle, France. In addition, she will join NESSE on May 18th for a special session at ISGC 2017: “Thriving Careers and Sustainability: A Discussion Panel”. For more information, please visit  Untitled

What motivated you to pursue a career in science?

Firstly, when I was young, I loved mathematics. It was for me a challenge to solve those problems, to the extent it became a game for me. Secondly, I was and I am still very curious about everything. I like to learn, to discover new scientific areas, to understand how everything works…  but I always have the feeling that I do not know anything. This is the reason why, after my engineer studies, I decided to do a PhD to get a higher level of knowledge and to develop my capacities to learn, to develop my creativity. I like challenges!

During my PhD, under the responsibility of Prof. Le Goff (ENSIC – Nancy), who was a person with a lot of ideas and with a passion for science, I really discovered what research was, and I liked it because it is always challenges to solve and to find concrete solutions. During this period, I discovered my creativity to solve technical problems by mixing ideas from different areas. It is the reason why I decided to do research and I applied to work at CNRS (the French Centre National of Scientific Research).

At CNRS I discovered something else: ideas are important, but we need a budget to develop them. Therefore, I decided to move to a new research unit, which had been created to improve the relationship between private and public research. This Mixed Research Unit consisted of 50% public researchers and 50% private researchers coming from Rhone Poulenc (Ex SANOFI). For me it was a fantastic period because I worked with experts in other areas without any budget issues. The target was to develop new methodology, new tools to develop gas/liquid/solid reactions at an industrial scale. I realized that, by working in a multidisciplinary team with different public and private experts, we could do fantastic research in a quick timeframe.

I also discovered that the research in a private company was focused on applications. For me, working on the bridge between fundamental research and the application was a new challenge. Thus I decided to go and work in private company to apply new fundamental concepts and to be more pragmatic.  Also, in a private company we have more opportunity to work in different areas, and to learn more in different subjects. In comparison, on public research you generally become an expert in one topic and stay in that area.

Can you tell us about your current role as Innovation/Technology/Sciences Director at UCB Biopharma?

My current role as Innovation/Technology/Sciences Director aims to introduce new methodology and technology to develop and industrialize new chemical and biological drugs. My idea is to develop a tool box to help researcher’s day to day.

I work with six Research & Development Departments, respectively API (Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient), DP (Drug Product), Analytical Department for both Small and Large Molecules, and with Universities (or start-ups) to help us develop our ideas concerning new technologies and to integrate them in our research department, then in a pilot plant and a manufacturing plant.

When we have a new idea, we take a Master’s student for 6 months to evaluate it and to get the answer for this following question: “Is it the right idea or the wrong one?” Depending on the answer, we either stop it or move on with a PhD student to develop it with the University that has the right expertise. The PhD student can work both at University and at UCB. It depends on the subject and where the best place to do research is (due to equipment, analytical tools, etc.).

Innovation means to create a new technology for UCB that does not exist anywhere else but also to introduce a new technology at UCB which is used by other companies but that UCB has not gotten yet. This latter innovation is at minimum risk. Most of the actions are confidential.

You have impressive record working on industrial management positions. What are some of the challenges you have faced in this aspect of your career?   

The greatest challenge I got was between Aug. 1993 and Aug. 1994. When I started at Rhone Poulenc in January of 1993, I was in charge of the continuous process improvement of four manufacturing plants: two in France, one in the UK and one in the US. Unfortunately, in August 1993, an explosion occurred at the US plant: some people died and some were drastically injured. I was named project manager to find the underlying reasons of the explosion and to design a new safe process in three months. I remember I was told: “you have unlimited resources, open budget, but make sure there are no incidents”.  I created a team of 40 people in one week, which comprised experts in chemistry, chemical engineering, analytical, safety, corrosion, etc.

It was a big and stressful challenge because we did not know the reasons of the explosion. Furthermore, to increase the complexity, Rhone Poulenc bought this manufacturing plant one year before and we had no access to the data concerning the development of the process for this intermediate compound. We had to develop everything in a safe way in three months: main reaction, by-product reactions, analytical methods to follow the reactions, kinetic of reactions, stability of compounds, etc., in order to understand the reasons of the explosion.

I remember we did the first reactions in a “special bunker”, a special safety lab in order to define safe operating conditions. In three months, due to the impressive work of the team, we had understood the reasons of the explosion and we had designed a new safe reactor with a controlled system to detect the presence of the dangerous by-product. It was my first experience in PAT (Process Analytical Technology). When I went to the US in December 1993 to present the data and the design of the new unit, they asked me to take charge of starting the future unit and to negotiate with OSHA the authorization to restart the previous one.

It was a new big challenge that I accepted. It was an important human experience to work with operators who had lived the accident. In fact, even if you know that safety is first, you are not totally aware about all the impacts and consequences an explosion has on people. The biggest challenge I had was to convince operators that we had understood all the reasons of the explosion and we had put in place all the necessary controls to work in a safe way. It was a problem of trust and it took time to regain it from them.

We restarted it August 1994 without any problems. Since then I kept a nice relationship with the operators during my stay in the US. I think that it was the biggest challenge I had in my career. It was an important human experience for me. Keep in mind that science is important but safety is more important.

From your perspective, how has the incorporation of green chemistry in industrial R&D evolved in recent years?   

In my own opinion, I observed that in most of cases Green Chemistry in the industrial world has been introduced mainly:

  • By new laws in environment which induces important cost for treatment of wastes.
  • By information about the consequences of the pollution on health.

For both these reasons, private companies had to adapt their processes with innovative solutions to reduce the cost of treatment of waste which becomes more and more important. Now Green chemistry is included in their policy: it is a label for potential customers. It is the reason why the R&D department takes into account this point to find innovative solutions for the development of green processes.

However, the problems and solutions are quite different for large chemical process and fine chemistry/pharmaceutical process. Large chemical productions are often manufactured by using a continuous process: by recycling solvents, catalysts, etc.  Generally, they measure the carbon footprint of each step. Thus, it is a point that is evaluated and they are looking for an innovative process in a safer way by reducing their waste, which induces a reduction of operating expenses.

Concerning fine chemistry and pharmaceutical companies, they have the habit to use batch processes. Up until now, they were very conservative due to regulatory affairs. Today this industry moves slowly by adopting innovative technologies such as micro/milli-reactors (process intensification), coupled with physical activation (photo chemistry, microwaves, electrochemistry, etc.), which generally induces a huge reduction of wastes. Furthermore, working in a continuous way gives us more flexibility concerning the size of the “batch”, and we avoid the destruction of good products that are not used. A typical example is a clinical trial: we need to manufacture a small amount of compound and the continuous process gives us this flexibility, unlike the batch process where the amount of compound depends on the size of reactor. So now researchers are aware about green chemistry practices and they try to develop innovative green processes, but the first priority is the quality for patients.

Fostering innovation is a key role on your current professional field.  You have worked to develop a student’s program at UCB and you are currently in charge of the Scientific External Partnership with Universities. What has this experience been like?  

Being in charge of Innovation/Technology/Sciences, my job is to develop a tool box to help researchers creating new processes for new drugs with higher quality for patients at a lower cost. When you develop an innovative idea, you take a risk from a budget and resources point of view. In order to reduce these risks, I introduced a student’s program at UCB. What does it mean?

It is a master-student who does the evaluation of the idea during 6 months. So the evaluation of the idea is done at low cost. Furthermore, if the idea is interesting, we go on with the development with a PhD, or a Post-Doc with a Professor at University who is an expert in this area. We reduce the risk of failure as we have an expert to help us developing the idea. So the student’s program is composed with master-student, PhD and post-Doc with a lot of relationships with different Universities. In 2016, we had more than 30 master students, 25 PhD and 3 Post-Docs in TSO (Technical Supply Operations).

Sometimes, I take several PhDs for the same project with several professors from different Universities who have different areas of expertise to solve a problem or to develop a new tool. Each PhD has his own objective but he must work in a team. It is a good experience for everybody. I often observed a silo between chemical and biological experts. It is unfortunate because we can learn from each other and together we can find very innovative solutions.

The student program has another advantage: we have time to evaluate the student during his trainee. It is a good opportunity to hire our new researchers from this pool.  In order to create a good relationship between Universities and UCB and to motivate students to apply for a master or a PhD at UCB, I teach in 5 different Universities, in each for about 2.5 days:

  • 1 day concerning industrial cases that I had to solve as Chemical Engineer during my professional life
  • 1 day concerning Innovation in industrial process (my own vision): what will happen in a close future: I mix innovation in chemical with biological process
  • 0.5 day: PAT: Process Analytical Technology.

What advice would you give to early-career professionals seeking to work in industry?   

For post-docs or researchers, the most important qualities you must have are to be flexible, mobile and adaptable. Why?  Today, we live in a world that changes continuously.

First example: You can enter a company that has a strategy and policy. Tomorrow the company is bought by another one and the strategy and policy change. Even if you stay in the same office for the same job, you must adapt to the new strategy and policy of the new company.

Second example: You can be hired for your expertise in a certain area. Tomorrow, for any reason, the company decides to stop this activity, so you must find a solution: either to develop a new expertise in another area in the company or to leave the company to practice your expertise in another one. It is a problem of flexibility.

Third example: you can have a big opportunity to develop your career in the same company but in other country. What do you do? Are you mobile? Are you adaptable to the new environment in a foreign country? If you are mobile and adaptable you can go for this journey.

Finally, nowadays as a researcher you must follow all new discoveries, new trends that are done in your area and take in account all other advancement from other areas. You will work in a multidisciplinary team and you must adapt yourself to these new technologies.

Here is an example concerning the evolution of communication: in the past we communicated by letters, then by fax, after by email, etc. What kind of new system will it be tomorrow? We are now talking about Industry 4.0, Internet of Things, robots in the laboratory to do our experiments. All these new tools change the ways of working and we must be flexible, adaptable, and mobile to use them. The future starts now, and if you want to know the future, dream it and create it for a better chemistry and for a better life. The only thing that remains constant about technology, sciences, and even the world is the fact that it is constantly changing. 

Thank you Dr. Lecomte-Norrant for your valuable participation. We look forward to continuing our discussion in La Rochelle!

ISGC is the leading event for scientists and industries to share their findings on sustainable chemistry. ISGC 2017 will take place in La Rochelle, France from May 16th-19th. NESSE will be present with activities for early-career professionals seeking to be part of a sustainable future.

Scientist Profiles: Prof. Wasserscheid

Editor’s Notes: Ahead of the International Symposium on Green Chemistry, NESSE Member Simon Rauch interviews Professor Wassercheid.  Prof. Wassercheid is a German chemist and professor for chemical reaction engineering at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. Prof. Wassercheid will be presenting a plenary lecture at the ISGC on the topic of Novel, selective catalytic routes to organic acids from biomass. If you are attending the ISGC, or would like to participate regardless – NESSE are giving you the opportunity! For full details please see our dedicated ISGC page.Prof. Wasserscheid


The long list of your awards begins with the first prize at the contest “Jugend forscht” (Young researchers). How did it come that you took part at this contest in the field of chemistry at a humanistic highschool? What is the fascination of chemistry?

It was not my decision to visit a humanistic highschool but my parents’ at this time. The interest in physics and chemistry came during school and so I decided, independently from the type of school, to participate in the “Jugend Forscht” competition. My feeling at this time was that the particular contest of “Jugend forscht” offers a very nice platform for first steps in science. You are free to develop your own topic, you get support by the school, and you have very experienced referees on the different stages of the contest which give you valuable feedback and a first glimpse on how science works. This was very fascinating for me from the very beginning; I understood that what you learn at school is the foundation of a scientific process. I was attracted by the fact that even a very young researcher can easily cross the border to virgin areas in science.

How do you understand the term sustainability?

Research towards sustainable chemical manufacturing implies that all relevant material and energy cycles of a newly developed process should be closed. This is a significant challenge as most of the traditional manufacturing processes in the chemical industry take fossil fuels as material and energy source and many relevant cycles are not fully closed so far. Thus a central question in the development of sustainable chemical processes is: “Will my new technology work without producing something that is not part of the cycle”. Of course, such newly developed technologies are only of value if they are applicable. Applicability includes effectiveness, economic attractiveness, and social compatibility.

How does your research contribute to a sustainable development? What will be the topic of your talk at the ISGC 2017 in La Rochelle?

Here in Erlangen at the Friedrich-Alexander University my group is active in catalysis and material science towards more effective chemical reaction engineering. We apply this to topics like chemical energy storage, selective hydrogenation/dehydrogenation and C-C-coupling reactions but also to biomass conversion processes. In La Rochelle I will talk about new routes to convert biomass to formic acid and acrylic acid and probably also about hydrogen storage technologies based on Liquid Organic Hydrogen Carrier (LOHC) systems.  

You talked about more effectiveness. But I often hear efficiency in the context of sustainability. An increasing efficiency comes along with a higher chance of external effects in the range of systemic risk. This increases the vulnerability of the entire system.  Shouldn’t we be more aware of the balance between efficiency and resilience?

Well, it is getting a bit philosophical here I think that a researcher dedicated to the goal of sustainability should define the terms “effective” and “efficient” in a sustainable manner. This would exclude the negative effects that you have mentioned. You may criticize chemical engineering approaches of the past that have strived for greater efficiency and left some aspects of sustainability out and this is exactly what we should avoid in the future. So our “effective” and “efficient” is exactly an effectiveness and efficiency in a closed cycle that aims for maximizing sustainability. And therefore I don’t see a contradiction between my definition of effectiveness and efficiency and the term of sustainability.  

Do you think that a technological development is sufficient to reduce the risk our society is confronted with? I don’t believe in the sustainability of an economic system, which is based on the paradigm of infinite growth on a planet with limited resources. Is humbleness a necessary virtue of scientists?

First of all, infinite growth in quantities is indeed a problematic goal. In contrast, if we talk about a growth in quality, this is the way to go. Growth and sustainability are not in contradiction, if you talk about a growth in quality of your processes and products. If people are ready to pay more for the higher quality, we generate growth on the economic scale without just numbering up and wasting more resources.

Humbleness is important for every scientists, because the world is full of secrets and not everything can be overlooked by a human being in 2017. We are not one hundred percent sure, whether the things we propose to increase sustainability now, will be seen as a positive contribution to this goal in 2050. The scientific development is full of misjudgement with respect to what future generations need. Still, with all the knowledge we have, all the knowledge that we can look up very quickly today on the internet, I think the chance that we go completely wrong if we honestly try to be sustainable, is very low.

You recommended a career in academia for those who don’t see the sense of their life in increasing the profit of a company, because scientists work for reputation and honor. But are scientists still able to work freely as this was meant to be, for example by Alexander Humboldt or Karl Jaspers. Or are they more and more subjected by the New Public Management?

This is a question regarding the funding situation of an academic institution like ours. We have a large research group that is working on interesting scientific questions, but in order to have such a large group, we need to bring in third-party funding. This external funding comes from different organisations, for example the German Science Foundation, the European Community or different industrial partners. Every sponsor has its own agenda. This agenda may be fundamental science, like in the case of the German Science Foundation, but it may also be a close networking of industry and academia towards a potential product, problem solution or market scenarios.

I think one has to be so fair to say, that academic research is very expensive and so it has to give something back to the society. One very important part is the student education, but another part is to create some sort of value for the society on a short, medium or long term. I can accept politicians or tax payers which expect that an engineering institution should have an impact on the technological development of a country. This is different from an academic institution in humanities, where the questions are typically much more fundamental. It would be wrong if academic engineering institutions would avoid the contact with real world problems. The only reason why you need to be an engineer is to transfer fundamental knowledge into better products or processes. This has naturally an exposure to application and industrial realisation.

Having said this, I have the opinion that also an engineering professor should have the freedom to follow her or his visionary and future-oriented ideas on a longer timescale even if these have no immediate application today. I would certainly like to have more longterm funding to follow such type of research directions. If you would give me money for five positions guaranteed for the next fifteen years, I would certainly start to develop topics that are different from the current hypes and could potentially be of high future value.

German Universities have problems with the copyright law and digital access to scientific literature.  Shouldn’t we start to think about open access to scientific insights and increase the transparency in exchange to public funding?

This is a question that has many different implications and is not easy to answer in a couple of sentences. One problem is certainly that some publishers see publishing of scientific results as big business, with maximizing return on investment to make shareholders happy. Consequently, it becomes more and more unaffordable for scientific institutions to cover the cost for the needed full access to the current state-of-the-art. On the other hand, scientists write for free, referee for free and edit for free. They typically do so to work on their own scientific reputation. This looks indeed like a rather unfair system. So, in the future, we have to find better ways to assure top quality refereeing and fair paper selection that still give full access of the scientific community to all relevant results.
It is also problematic that many scientific communities have created strong incentives to maximize the quantitative paper output of their scientists. Even with all the electronic databases, it is inefficient if a certain part of the publications is just produced by the need to publish and not by the need to communicate essential results. Of course, this aspect has a strong interplay with the questions how you rank scientists, how you distribute resources and, in some countries, even how scientists are paid.

Has the research in the field of sustainability had an effect on the way you live your life?

It gives you a good feeling. I try to do my scientific work in a way that I can discuss with people about it without feeling ashamed. I want to give them the feeling that we contribute to a better future of our society. This gives me a personal satisfaction and therefore it contributes in a positive manner to my life. This would be certainly different, if I would have to do research for a company or organisation on things that I do not feel appropriate for a sustainable development. This is one good thing of being a professor, because you can freely select your topics and your scientific goals.


This post was edited by Thomas Clark.

Scientist Profiles: Dr. Amy Cannon

Editor’s Note: NESSE member Roberto Federico-Perez interviews Dr. Amy Cannon. Amy is the Executive Director of the Beyond Benign, a non-profit organization that promotes sustainable science through education for the next generation of scientists. She holds the worlds’ first PhD in green chemistry from the University of Massachusetts. She was awarded the Kenneth G. Hancock Memorial Award in Green Chemistry in 2004 for her work on titanium dioxide semiconductors and their application in dye-sensitized solar cells. Her interests are in green chemistry education and research around safer green chemistry alternative technologies.


How did you first become interested in the field of green chemistry and sustainability in general?

It probably was in the 8th grade. My school had an Earth Day fair and students were invited to put together an information booth. I decided to talk about ozone depletion. It was the first time that I started to learn about environmental issues and the challenges that we faced in terms of sustainability. It really opened my eyes and from that day on I knew ‘I wanted to save the world’, although I had no idea what that meant at the time.

I was always interested in environmental issues and science, but when I went to college I chose chemistry. There was no environmental science major in my college at that time. Looking back, I’m glad it was not available. Being a chemistry major was a pivotal point. Had I not gone in that direction I would have probably not come to green chemistry, from which I learned about only until I got into graduate school. Because of my background, I was looking what I could do with chemistry in the environmental field and I got into a program at UMass Boston. I was assigned to Dr. John Warner as an advisor and that was the first time I heard about green chemistry. Once I learned about this new field I remember being so inspired and thinking ‘this is what I was looking for’. I was excited about the opportunities and the thought of chemistry being the solution and not the problem. It shifted my focus and made me think that I could use my skills to create something that would solve these problems.

You were the first person to complete a green chemistry PhD at UMass Boston. This is a unique program in the country in terms of having a track focused on this field. How has it grown since you have graduated?

When I first got into the program they only had a Master’s available. Once I learned about what green chemistry was I quickly changed my major to chemistry. Most of the students at the time were working professionals who dedicated evenings to getting their degree. We saw that as an opportunity to have a PhD program at the chemistry department, since the Master’s existed only in collaboration with other departments. I was the first one to graduate with a PhD in green chemistry, and since I helped to originally integrate the program for the first time, it took a couple more years for more graduates to get through it. Now I believe there have been about 20 to 30 people that have completed it. A couple of them actually work here at the Warner-Babcock Institute of Green Chemistry.

What is the work that Beyond Benign does to promote green chemistry?

Our mission is to transform chemistry education to better support scientists and citizens. We intend to transition education towards green chemistry so that students who come out of these academic institutions are better prepared to design greener alternatives. We know that not everybody will become a chemist. However, they will all become consumers and we also want them to be prepared to make better choices. We do this from K-12 through higher education, and we have different programming depending on the educational level.

What kind of strategies do you implement specifically for K-12 education?

K-12 involves three different levels: elementary, middle, and high school. The bulk of our work throughout the history of our organization has been at the high school level. The high school stage is particularly relevant because we have to tie our activities to state and national standards. We have available in our portfolio three different kinds of curriculum for high school teachers. What teachers are most interested in are the drop-in replacement labs, which give some context about green chemistry, but can also remove some of the current hazards that you can find in teaching labs. They are convenient because they adapt into the existing curriculum: you can still show the same concepts and be subject to the same standards, but you can drop them right in. Teachers really like them because they can easily fit them into their program.

The statistics show that if students do not have a positive view about science before the 8th grade, they will not pursue it in college. This is why we regard earlier years as critical too. Middle school level is exciting for us because it has more opportunities for interdisciplinary learning. Therefore, it allows us to provide more context. At the elementary level, much of the focus is on reading, writing, and math. We actually just received news that we are getting funding to develop elementary level curriculum. Our development will include those disciplines, and we also want to integrate other elements such as art as a platform for communicating science.

Have you faced any challenges regarding teachers’ willingness to incorporate this approach into their instruction?

What we actually see is a lot of interest from teachers, derived mainly from three different reasons. The first one is the fact that they are able to remove hazards from the classroom. Second, it is a low-budget approach that does not require special equipment. Three is the ability to provide context. We are always developing new experiments and we collaborate with partners to do so. A recent example of this is the development of three different modules based on greener technology by Steelcase, an office furniture manufacturer that we collaborated with. This gives us a chance to talk about the cutting-edge technology in sustainability that is coming out from industry, and that can go back to the classroom to illustrate an abstract concept for students.

We actually just launched this summer a program called Lead Teachers. We are bringing ten teachers a year that will work with us on a three-year basis. The idea is that they will be our voices on the ground and lead the green chemistry classroom experience in their regions. Our first cohort consists of teachers from the Massachusetts, New York, Michigan, and Toronto areas. We are now focusing on these areas, but our goal is to bring in teachers from all regions in the United States and even beyond.

You mentioned expansion to other countries as an opportunity for the program. Has Beyond Benign done any worked involving other countries and educational systems? If so, what are some of the differences when compared to the approach taken in the US?

We have done some work in the past. Early on we had funding from Pfizer to make adaptations to our curriculum. We have a version in Spanish and also an Australian version. Even though the latter is also in English, it does require revisions due to the different cultural nuances between countries. We have also done teacher trainings in Germany, the UK, Australia, and Puerto Rico. We have worked in India, and some of the differences between our educational systems were reflected in this case. For instance, in the US, teachers have more flexibility to apply different techniques in the classroom as long as concepts comply with standards. In the case of India, the infrastructure is set up in a top-down approach, where changes come down to teachers through the system. Therefore, the challenge in this case has involved working with both educators and administrators, and getting to the right people.

At the higher education level, Beyond Benign is one of the partners of the Green Chemistry Commitment, which brings together efforts of colleges and universities towards sustainability in this area. How did this idea start and what are its goals?

We had this idea that originated when I was at a conference with Anthony Cortese, who helped create the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. He was in a panel with me and talked about that program. I looked at it and thought that it was great in the sense that it was a non-regulatory, volunteering approach that was driven by the community. I thought whether we could do something similar with green chemistry. We did not want to have the approach of saying ‘this is what you must teach’, but rather to have a way of facilitating change at a departmental level in higher education. There has been so much work done in green chemistry at the individual level since I started in the field. The purpose of the Green Chemistry Commitment (GCC) is to shift that work from the individual to the institutional level so that we can create lasting and systemic change. We know that it is not an easy task and we recognize that it is easier to work with individuals. We definitely celebrate those efforts because that is where change starts. But ultimately, the goal is to help a department look at their programs and help modify it across the whole curriculum, so that legacy is left behind. We started with 13 institutions and we are at 33 now. We have experienced at the moment more interest, so we are expecting a larger growth soon with several institutions coming on board. We actually have hired a program manager to help with the GCC.

What do you believe is an area of opportunity in the traditional college curriculum for improvement towards green chemistry?

There has been some wonderful work in the space of organic chemistry labs to implement greener practices. But I think where the field is moving towards is integrating toxicology concepts into chemistry programs and courses. I believe that is a great opportunity because what it provides a chemist with the language to know what questions to ask for. It gives us the skills and knowledge to understand toxicological endpoints and how to use them in our portfolio as molecular designers to reduce hazards for humans and the environment. We have a working toxicology group within the Green Chemistry Commitment program that consists of faculty members and industry professionals. We have been developing workshops and symposia at conferences to talk about this and share different models from people that have incorporated toxicology into their programs. Many times as chemists we do not have the tools to address toxicology due to our training, so there are all kinds of questions that professors might have to incorporate those concepts into the already packed curriculum. We are trying to help address those questions and show faculty where they can start dropping these concepts in.  

I believe it is very empowering as a chemist to be able to look at a structure and draw conclusions about whether it would persist in the environment, or whether it has potential to be a carcinogen. So it is important to know what to look out for when we are designing materials and products. This definitely represents a platform for innovation.

Scientist Profiles: Prof. James Clark

Editor’s Note: NESSE member Simon Rauch interviewed Prof James H. Clark, one of the pioneers of green and sustainable chemistry. He has been working within this field for 20 years, promoting this subject through the Royal Society of Chemistry. He is founding Editorial Board Chair of the Green Chemistry Journal and has published 59 articles in the journal. Prof. Clark established the Green Chemistry Network and is currently the presiding president. He also helped to establish the Biorenewables Development Centre and the Network of Global Green Chemistry Centres. Simon notes: “It was an honour to talk with him.”

Prof. James Clark






Rauch: More than 20 years ago you started as a pioneer with your research on green chemistry. How did it come that you worked in the field of sustainability with such a passion?

Clark: All that started during my first collaboration with a company more than 20 years ago and this made me realise that chemical manufacturing companies have serious problems. I think probably the most interesting thing, I saw, was the difficulty of what we did in the lab on a very small scale effectively being transferred into a large scale. And that meant all the bad things like the inefficiency, the large volume of solvents, the need to control exothermic reactions, the work up and separations. I think that I had been naive, to assume that it would be somehow different in industry. But in fact the industry was just copying what we did in the lab and doing that in a thousand times scale, with a thousand times the problems. That made me think that actually chemistry, as we did it in the research lab, needed to be improved. And of course also we had to start thinking the way we do industrial chemistry differently.

Rauch: It must have been difficult to start with the research on green chemistry at that time, because it wasn’t that popular issue at this time.

Clark: Well, it’s still not that popular now. You have to realise that chemistry and most of the old sciences is very conservative and traditional. People don’t like to change the way they do things. So, in the early days, it was especially difficult because the industry was not really welcoming. I was often told to leave when I went to see a company, because they thought I would just come to preach to them. Yes, it was a problem because there was no special funding, particularly early on. Industry was hostile and most of the academics, I think, didn’t really understand it. So what happened in reality was, that there were a few major research areas that happened to correspond with green chemistry, but who do it anyway, like super critical fluids, ionic liquids, catalysis, supported reagents. Those became a kind of flagships, certainly in the west. That was the beginning of what we call green chemistry. To the credit of the UK research council: by the late 90s there was a special program that encouraged what we now call green chemistry. Same with the EPA in the USA. They were powerful from a legislation point of view, a policy point of view but also a funding point of view. They had programs dedicated to green chemistry. Academics follow money, because you can’t do research without money, especially in chemistry, which is very expensive. And also the success of your career is measured by the success you have by obtaining research funds. And they began to appear in the late 90s.

Rauch: The Green Chemical Centre of Excellence was developed out of the Green Chemistry Centre for Industrial Collaboration. The Industrial Engagement Facility still plays a big role and you often invite business leaders to visit. Why is this cooperation so important for you?

Clark: It goes back to the early beginning of my career. I realised that all this is pointless unless we can make it relevant for industry. Chemistry is a practical subject, especially green chemistry. There is nothing theoretical about it. We have to make it work in industry. In the early days it was all about making it work in chemical manufacturing, the pharmaceutical industry followed later, with smaller volume but much more complicated chemistry. More recently there has been a growing interest from user industries, for example, last Friday I had a meeting with someone from Disney. There’s hardly any sector of industry these days that doesn’t recognise the importance of green or sustainable chemistry, it’s wide spread. Every driver you can think of, from resources, to legislation, to manufacturing, to consumer pressure, to public and NGO pressure, seems to be applying to chemicals and chemistry.

More than ever it’s critical that we see the green chemistry and its principles and concepts applied to industry. To do that, we have to talk to industry and academics. It’s not necessarily comfortable to talk to the industry and that’s why we created these environments like the one we are sitting now to make that easier.

Rauch: I am a bit afraid of an economisation of universities and the academic sector as well. On the one hand it is an advantage, if researchers earn money with projects funded by companies, but isn’t there a danger of dependency and a transition to an only monetary profit orientated research model?

Clark: I think a lot of academics assume that that’s the case. They don’t realise that you don’t completely need to get into bed with the company to work with them. If you take our centre here as an example. It’s considered to be a flagship for industrial collaboration but actually direct funding from industry is only a proportion and much, much less than a half in terms of proportion of founding that comes to the centre. It’s not necessary the case to work directly with industry but I do think, it is important, if you are claiming to do green chemistry relevant research, that you are aware of industry’s needs and the opportunities. So you carry on your research, but you always are always thinking about how that is relevant to real industrial practise or might be relevant in the future. How you can get your discoveries, your enthusiasm, your interest in what you are doing across to industry. It’s all about communication really. As long as we keep talking to industry, then they have the opportunity to take some of our better ideas and put them into practise.

Rauch: Talking with others is a good bridge to my next question. For the past 10 weeks I have been working in the laboratory of the Green Chemical Centre of Excellence (GCCE). I was pleasantly surprised to work together with colleagues and also new friends now, from all over the world: France, Italy, Spain, Malta, Ireland, Oman, China, Turkey, Lithuania, USA, Brazil and of course the UK. To reach the 17 United Nations sustainability goals we have to work together. Which organisations, panels and platforms are important to realise this necessary cooperation between countries but also universities and academia?

Clark: It’s interesting because I think there is growing awareness toward internationalisation. Two years ago we started the Global Green Chemical Centres Network (G2C2) which we call a bottom up activity. Driven by people like myself, working academics and other scientists who believe that, back to what I said, communication is very important, want to share best practise and believe that everything is globally important. On Wednesday this week, in fact of coincidence, I travel to Germany again and I’m going to the next meeting of what’s called the International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Centre which comes down all the way from the top. It’s an initiative of the German Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt) and a really interesting concept, because we need to take some responsibility for driving an international agenda. And that means really understanding how we can get concepts, principals, practises and ideas put on the international stage. You mentioned the UN agenda on sustainability. We have to find out, how we fit into that. This particular group, which had been brought together by the German government, is very international. I have been asked to chair the advisory board which had its first tentative meeting a few months ago. It’s an interesting collection of academics, industrials, politicians and also some NGOs. I like that because I think it is important to get a wide range of stakeholders together to make this thing work. In my opinion the UN is an interesting vehicle for taking some of these ideas forward. So there is now at least some international activity going on, up until now everything has been largely on a national level. Even in Europe, there is no obvious European initiative, politics usually get in the way of these things. People are at least aware of the need to do more internationally and I hope that this will grow in the next few years.

Rauch: Despite the huge demonstrations of civilians and the criticisms expressed by experts/NGOs against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, European and US-American politicians still promote the agreement. One of the three broad areas is the regulation. In 2007 the European Union declared REACH – Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals. Is there any danger for REACH because of the negotiations of TTIP?

Clark: No. I see other dangers for REACH. I was involved in REACH form every early on, before it even became law. REACH ended up as a compromised legislation, between government, NGOs and Industry. They were arguing until the last hour before REACH became law. It doesn’t, in my opinion, go far enough in critical area of substitution. However, it does achieve the most important objective, which, whatever happens in the future you cannot take away, and that is awareness. The awareness of chemicals and the fact that chemicals can present problems. We could do better with regards to the chemicals we use and how we use them. Quite often we talk to retailers, home and personal care manufactures, big companies like Unilever, Procter and Gamble, pharmaceutical producers. I’ve talked to so many different industry sectors over the last few years. They all now understand, that chemicals are important to what they do, their business. And this is really due to REACH. REACH has made everybody realise that they have chemicals in their supply chain, and if some of those chemicals come under threat from legislation or only just from public awareness, than they have to do something about this. The genie is out of the bottle now and this will continue to be an interesting subject to debate for some time to come. It took me a while to understand this myself, because, as I said, I was disappointed ten years ago, when REACH first became law, the substitution was diluted. In recent years, as the first substances have been going forward for testing and potential authorisation, I saw a lot of very interesting chemicals being proposed, so called substances of very high concern. I thought this was very exciting because it made a lot of big companies think again about the chemicals that they were using. I have been recently concerned about the way that the law has effectively handled these issues and think that they have been a little soft, but as I said this is of secondary importance. People now know that there are certain substances that, even if any of the legislation anywhere in the world allows you to carry on using them, are harmful and toxic to the environment and unacceptable to the general public. So, I don’t think it’s going to be as easy for companies to carrying on using such chemicals.

Rauch: If we talk about sustainability, then doesn’t green chemistry also need green agriculture and green forestry? How much biomass are we allowed to extract without crossing a boundary?

Clark: There is a danger that we compartmentalise our biomass consumption. We tend to talk about food on the one hand and about chemicals on the other. People don’t connect chemicals to everything they use in today’s society, the clothes they wear, the furniture they sit on, the carpet they are walking on, just everything. Chemists understand that and chemists have a responsibility to help the general public to become more aware of this, because until they do, they will consider chemicals as synthetic, quite separate from food, which they consider natural. The challenge of green chemistry really is to make the two the same, to fit both in the same ecosphere.

Chemicals at the moment are largely extracted from dead biomass, from biomass that has accumulated over millions of years, in the form of oil, coal and to some extend gas. Now the problem with those is that they aren’t sustainable. We can’t continue to use these resources. That’s a fundamental point, we need to accept. If we do accept, then we need look at alternatives. And those should be available on a lifecycle similar to our own, so around 100 years. When we eat food, the carbon is released again soon. We release the carbon, after we die. But look at a plastic bag that is made out of polyethylene. The problem is of course, the carbon will not return to the environment through natural means for hundreds of years, because of its slow bio-degradability. If we take a metal, which is extracted from an ore, processed and turned into a mobile phone which then ends up in a landfill site. The metal will sit in the landfill site for the next hundreds or thousands of years and is not available for reuse. These are inconsistencies that need to be brought together. But to me, they are all the same thing. It’s all about living sustainably.

We have to understand that consuming chemicals, in all those articles I talked about is not really different to consuming food. If we have the same rules for everything, we can work together. Personally I don’t see a problem with growing chemicals in the future effectively. Henry Ford by all accounts, was not a nice man but made a wonderful visionary statement. He said, at least 80 years ago, “that farms will be the factories of the future”. That’s a wonderful concept. Farms grow carbon and other elements in a sustainable way, well it should be in a sustainable way. We use it for food and feed, so why shouldn’t we use it for chemicals. We did some calculations a while ago and came to the conclusion that around 1 billion tons of carbon would satisfy all the chemical needs on the planet. This is less than the amount of carbon we throw away in the food supply chain in the form of the inedible components like stones, peals and so on. Now people will then say that we need those components to go back into the land for nutritional purposes. Yes to some extent they do. All the farmers I speak to say, you don’t need it all. And at the moment an awful amount is burned. China admits almost 200 million tons a year of rice straw is burned on the fields every year. It’s illegal but it happens. You get the same story in Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and many other countries. We are already contaminating the atmosphere and wasting enormous quantities of biomass. If we divert those into chemical manufacturing, we would relieve enormously, the current demand for petroleum and other sources of fossil carbon.

We need to step back and look at the whole thing holistically. I think that this is very important. One of the main problems with sustainability is the sectorisation of industry, of society. We are the chemical manufacturing, we are the energy sector, we are the farming sector, we are the food sector, we are consumers, we are all consumers. We need to get together. That goes back to your previous question about the panels and maybe an organisation like the UN could be the best place to do this. They really need to bang heads together and get people from different sectors to come together and agree on some fundamentals and once they have agreed on those, we can plan a way forward. We have to do that together. If we carry on doing our things separately, I fear for our future because it’s never going to be very efficient. Let’s start off by accepting the fact that actually it all comes down to the same thing: consumption of renewable resources on a time scale compatible with our own.

Rauch: Albert Schweitzer once said: “We live in a dangerous age. The human controls nature, before he learned to control himself” Does a transition towards a sustainable society require any change of the own individual behaviour?

Clark: Well. We need to engage everybody. This is everybody we are talking about, everybody’s future, everybody’s children’s future. How can we live sustainably in a single ecosystem we call the planet earth. I worry, when I hear about groups of scientists, in the USA in particular, talking about exploiting other worlds or asteroid mining. Those ideas had been suggested quite seriously as ways to satisfy our apparently insatiable appetite for resources. In principle, I suppose it’s possible, heaven knows what sort of Pandora’s box we have opened, why can’t we learn to live sustainably in what we have got. The world has a large volume of resources. We have been cavalier in the way we have extracted the easy to get resources. We have taken the easy oil, we have taken the easy gas, we have taken the easy metals. We creamed the surface of the planet for its valuable resources and then we have transferred those into the atmosphere, into the oceans or into landfill sites, places where they very difficult to regain.

That is unacceptable, unsustainable and also shows a total lack of duty of care. I suspect future generations will look at ours as being one of the worst. We have really exploited the planet without any future consideration. We are now beginning to talk about this as a real issue. But the conversation has to be with everybody. Next year I hope to spend several months in Africa. Where I think in a way, many people say that in all sorts of context, it is the centre of what we are talking about. What happens in Africa in the next 50 years, will be critical to the world. It’s, on the positive side, because it’s virgin territory, so little is there. We have a great opportunity to develop a genuinely sustainable model for the rest of the world.

Some years ago I was involved in a project in a South African township. We worked together with children, who have never heard about science or mathematics and without having any opportunity. But when you start with talking to them, engaging and challenging them, they are naturally enthusiastic. That gives me great hope.

Otherwise, if we keep on doing business as usual, the future is more and more instable. If we keep on extracting metals, the markets will be more volatile, the politics more hostile and instability in metal mining areas will increase. We really have to collectively work together to do this a make people understand. In a way it’s a bigger challenge for the wealthy members of the society, the small fraction which has everything, compared to those who don’t have so much. It’s their natural situation to respect the environment, the resources and keep things in use as long as possible, compared to ourselves. We separate ourselves from the environment with concrete and articles of society. To claim that we are actually part of the environment is a little bit of a joke in terms of the way we practice the consumption of resources over the last 100 years.

But it’s best to be optimistic. There is some reason for positivity, there is increased awareness through all sorts of reasons, such as those we have discussed earlier. We do have a bright young generation coming through who consider these issues to be natural to them. We need to cultivate and encourage that through the educational process and give them the opportunity to put their ideas into practice. But this does require, back to your question, all of us to share a common vision. And that’s a great challenge. Let’s concentrate on getting as many people on this planet as aware as possible of what we are talking about. We all share the same planet we all wish to consume its resources and this must be done in a sustainable way.

Prof. Dr. Schlücker

Editor’s Note: NESSE member Simon Rauch interviewed Prof. Dr. Schlücker on his career path to becoming a professor, the meaning of sustainability and the topic “future management”. Prof. Dr. Schlücker is the chair for process machinery and apparatus technology at University of Erlangen/Nuremberg.

Prof  Schlücker (002)








Rauch: In your lecture “Future Management“, you said that one does not speak enough about sustainability and act for it. That is also my opinion and I would like to change this. Thank you for taking the time to do this interview.

 Rauch: Now you are the head of the institute of process machinery and systems engineering at the University of Erlangen/Nuremberg. Could you talk about how you reached this position?

Schlücker: I didn’t do the A-levels, maybe I should start with this, but I have a degree from secondary school. In addition to an apprenticeship as a metal worker, I got a skilled worker degree in mechanical engineering in an evening school. Being 17 years old, I studied mechanical engineering at a technical college. At the young age of 21 I started working at a company as an engineer, where I had the luck to meet a person, who showed me what research means and encouraged me, to keep going. While I was working there, I realized that I am interested in it and that I find pleasure in discovering new things. So I decided to study chemical engineering here in Erlangen and finish my PhD. Afterwards I went back to the company as head of the research and development department. Only shortly after that I became Head of Engineering. When I got to know that the position of my doctoral supervisor will be available, I applied for it and I was lucky. Concerning research, I have developed a nice idiom: “research is like gathering flowers, but the bouquet in the hand is becoming smaller and the meadow more colorful” this simply means: I have a question, I find an answer to this question but have two new questions. Research never ends and is always exciting.

I also like it that the students never get older, only I do. So I can follow the trends of the adolescent culture and always get new input. I wouldn’t have that in a company. Being a professor is a great job.

Rauch: You already anticipated the next question. What played a pivotal role in your career path, coincidence, luck or misfortune?

Schlücker: Bad luck didn’t. Coincidence did in the shape of human encounters. I had, coincidence or not, great bosses in a company, who took a serious interest in helping their employees develop. I became friends with my former superior, who was 20 years older than me. He was the one motivating me and he was the influence that brought me on my way.

Rauch: You answered some of your emails with your smartphone. Would you be able to live without it or is it a necessity for the job as professor nowadays?

Schlücker: You could put it this way: We have the problem that we put our society into the hands of those devices. Because everybody does this, we cannot do without it in this profession. A working day isn’t finished after eight hours and the weekend also isn’t free with work. One relies on fast communication and this is also expected by others. If you don’t answer in 24 hours, this is seen negatively. I’m not happy with this development, because for me sustainability starts with how you deal with information and time. Furthermore, the circumstances of the research became more difficult regarding university management or the financial resources. We don’t have enough money for doctoral students, as it is necessary. Additionally, permanent positions are cancelled and the bureaucracy rises. One cannot lead his institute like before. It’s more like institute management.

Rauch:  It’s important for you, to arouse interest for research in school already. How do you realize this?

Schlücker: I’m a sponsor at a high school. From there, every year ten to 15 pupils come to the institute. They get a guided tour, I explain everything, show them everything. If they want, they can work on their own. I also donated a price. That one is awarded to the two best project works. Like this, I want to get in contact with the adolescents. When I was a young boy, the role models were scientist, engineers but also politicians. Today, most young people don’t have any role models, and if so, these are starlets from those casting shows and other strange celebrities. I think that we have lost something and in the context of my possibilities I try to be a role model like it was seen in former times.

Rauch: As your former boss and friend today, you want to motivate these pupils to do research?

Schlücker: Sure, awaken interest, show them that it is fun. It is not a classical role model effect, but I want to convey enthusiasm. I enjoy it, when one can convince and fascinate young people by taking action, but also by talking. The astonishment is important, as well as mindfulness and gratitude.

Rauch: How do you understand the term sustainability?

Schlücker:  For me, sustainability has a lot of facets. In essence it is about this: Treat humans, animals and nature in a way that a development, initiated by us, has the aim to treat all people around the world fairly, give chances and don’t influence the nature negatively.

Rauch: What role do engineers play in the realization of the idea of sustainability?

Schlücker: In my mind, engineers design the society with their technologies and the resulting wealth. They do so since several hundred years. One has to say, the problems regarding climate and environment are created by engineers, or they rather confronted society with them. It all started with coal mining and oil exploration. Therefore, it’s their task to invent technologies, which reverse this development. We were able to found a company, who is producing energy storage systems based on Liquid-Organic-Hydrogen-Carrier. These should contribute to the German “Energiewende” and the decentralized energy supply because they realize the energy storage over a long time without any bigger problems or costs, at a very low carbon-footprint. In another project I apply myself to the manufacture of organic plant protection products. We can observe that natural agents exist for many plants and plant diseases. Mostly one does not need any poisons.

Rauch: In the course of the German “Energiewende”, politicians plan for a rising energy consumption in the future. Shouldn’t it be the aim that the energy consumption is being reduced?

Schlücker: If we want to produce all the energy that we consume at the moment, in our country, we have to plant photovoltaic systems and wind turbines everywhere. So we will be bound to optimize the energy efficiency of our processes. At the moment I occupy myself with a project: modularization by the plant construction. I had the idea to provide all pumps with the same connection flange. With this, when the process is known in detail, the size of the pump can be laid out in an optimal way with the best efficiency level. This may cause an improvement regarding the energy consumption by 15-20 %.

Rauch: You give a lecture with the subject “future management”. Can you describe shortly what that means?

Schlücker: Future management should enable a good way to work for the people in the setting of sustainability. There should not occur any damage to fellow humans and nature. Especially in this subject, a lot of work has to be done. For example, in the range of a decentralized energy supply system. Should this be realized someday, there will exist, beside some big one, a lot of small structures, who need a new form of cooperation. Regarding this, it is important to limit egoisms, if we want to reach this objective together. I often apply for patents. Sometime, as with the idea of the unification of the flange, I waive on applying a patent, but publicize it, because I think that everybody should do it this way. It should be a common property.

Rauch: “Those who have visions should go to the doctors” said once the former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt. I think your philosophy is quite different. What is your vision?

Schlücker:  Of course. Without visions and dreams, there is no progress. First comes the dream, the vision is next and finally the realization. I have the vision of a decentralized energy supply. I have a vision of a better interaction and cooperation among people. Visions are import to get ahead. Regarding science, but also politics.

Rauch: That’s a great conclusion. Many thanks for the talk.



Scientist Profiles: Professor Robin D. Rogers

Editor’s Note: Dr. Rogers will be speaking at the International Symposium on Green Chemistry 2015 in La Rochelle, France on May 4th, 2015. This symposium brings together scientists from around the world to talk about the past, present, and future of green chemistry. This year’s symposium will feature nine different subfields of green chemistry and promises to be a very educational event! Registration is open here.

Robin RogersDr. Robin D. Rogers is one of the pioneers of the use of ionic liquids in green chemistry. He ranks in the top 1% most-cited chemistry researchers and has published over 750 papers on diverse topics. Currently the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Green Chemistry and Green Chemicals at McGill University, Dr. Rogers is also Founding Editor-in-Chief of Crystal Growth and Design, an editorial board member at three journals, an advisory board member of three others, a fellow of numerous scientific societies, and an entrepreneur who has started his own company, 525 Solutions. Dr. Rogers spoke with us about his many responsibilities, how to pursue green chemistry, and his excitement for the 2015 International Symposium on Green Chemistry.

How do you balance the responsibilities of your many roles? Which takes up the most time?

To me, everything is one—I’m one person; I have all these things to do and they get done. I don’t like to segment and work one hour on this, and one hour on that. Everything has to be done, and you have to do it 24/7. I try to stay organized and prioritize by the day. I listened to one of those motivational type seminars, where the analogy was the ringing telephone. No matter what you have to do, the telephone will ring and you have to answer it. Today, that’s the incoming e-mail that takes time out of your day for urgent tasks, but everything else still has to get done. To me, it’s all one and I make time to do all the things I’ve chosen to do. The other trick is that if there’s something that’s easy to do, I just do it right away.

Which role takes up the most time? That’s something I don’t ever really think about. Answering email is the one task that takes up the most time. What I like to do in terms of writing papers requires true concentration and shutting off everything else, so drafting papers takes up the largest chunks of time.

Your publishing record is formidable, with 21 patents and over 750 papers and 31,000 citations. Do you have any advice for chemists who want to pursue an influential research career?
In terms of a research career, you have to love it. That’s number one. I don’t think you can consider it to be work. Even today, after 30-some years of being a professor, I talk about going to school, not work. Number two is that success in any field requires dedication and hard work. That fits into the first one—if you love it, you don’t feel like it’s work. A lot of people would spend all their time on their hobbies if they could, because they enjoy them. I enjoy what I do, so if I’m working on weekends, at night, or during holidays, it doesn’t feel like work. You also have to set goals for the future—say next year, what do I want to have accomplished? Where will I be?

If you are an academic, you should be writing the paper from the moment you begin working in the lab—that’s how you design your experiment. The background that led you to the question is the introduction, the lab procedures are the experimental section, and so on. If you write your paper as you do the experiments, your paper is done when the work is done.

What inspired you to found your journal, Crystal Growth & Design? Can you tell us more about that process?

I don’t want to take full credit for founding it; it was an ACS effort and I was selected to be the founding editor. They developed the concept. I got into the editorial arena early as an associate editor of three or four journals over eight to ten years; then I created a concept for a journal called Crystal Engineering. Mike Zaworotko (University of Limerick) and I pitched that concept to Elsevier and they ran that journal for several years. During that time, ACS asked me to be the founding editor of CG&D, and it was a natural progression to me. Service is another part of the research profession; giving back to the community is important.

I had to select an editorial board, topic editors, decide on procedures for how to review papers, solicit authors. It was a lot of work, but it was fun. It was about a year from the time that I was asked until the first publication. We’re continually trying to improve the journal and get more people involved.

Have you noticed any differences in the research climate in Canada as opposed to the U.S.? How would you compare the status of green chemistry between the countries?

I think there are differences. My impression of Canada is that it’s a more traditional academic culture, while most of the U.S. universities have taken on more of a business culture. In the U.S. business culture, you have to get money—you’re always trying to promote your work and bring money in. Universities appreciate research funding because it helps keep the university running. At McGill, I found a highly intellectual academic home; it feels good to me. The academic endeavor for knowledge is valued a lot.

The whole field of green chemistry is more valued in Canada than in the U.S., even though you’re pretty much in the home of green chemistry there in Boston. John Warner, Paul Anastas, and Amy Cannon are all doing great work. However, if you look across the U.S., green chemistry is not well-funded. Medicinal chemistry, organic chemistry, and other traditional fields have established funding sources, but there is no huge funding effort in green chemistry, partially because it is a difficult field to define. Many people in the beginning thought it was more of a philosophical leaning than a hard science, and I think some of that still lingers on. Look at the fields our National Academy of Science members are working in and name me the people who identify themselves with green chemistry. If you go outside of the U.S., there are NAS-level people who are working on green chemistry, because it is a national priority. In Australia, China, and Europe, green chemists are supported by their governments because of the importance of their work to the future of society.

In Canada, to me, McGill is the world leader in green chemistry. I think Canada has done more than any other country in trying to develop this as a research field. At McGill, they not only have the research grants for green chemistry, but they have similar sustainability initiatives in finance and other fields. McGill has consistently made progress in this field—their students, for example, voted to tax themselves to fund sustainability initiatives across the campus. I think that says a lot for what green chemistry means to people in Canada.

Are there any undergraduate or graduate programs that excel at preparing someone for a career in green chemistry?

The state of green chemistry in the U.S. right now is that you have a few people like Terry Collins who are very passionate about the subject, but a few people are not enough. Unless a professor is interested in introducing those concepts in traditional lecture courses, students are not exposed to green chemistry. Almost no schools teach toxicology in a chemistry degree; it’s typically segregated into a different discipline. I look to the ACS to change the standards for accrediting chemistry degrees and then the level of awareness will change.

As for programs that excel at green chemistry education, there’s McGill, of course. University of Oregon has always stood out at the undergraduate level. Berkeley has a center for green chemistry. At the graduate level, you have to look on a professor-by-professor basis. Worldwide, you could consider Monash University, Buxing Han in Beijing, or Walter Leitner at Aachen. UMass Boston has a Ph.D. program in green chemistry now, but the build-up to more widespread adoption will be slow until the elite institutions join in.

Do you think the early-career path to go into industry/entrepreneurship is the same as academia—that is, bachelor’s followed by Ph.D.—or would you recommend something different?

The entrepreneurial route is one of the great ones today, if you want to develop a new technology or start a company. I believe it’s harder to introduce green chemistry at a large company. If you work at Dupont and present an idea, they won’t be interested unless you can guarantee $18 million in profits in one year, but when starting a business, even half a million might be good.

Starting a business doesn’t always require a degree, but if you are developing the sort of technologies that I’m talking about, I would want the person to be technically competent and get the Ph.D. Getting the experience and learning the language and learning how to think and design is important. If you bring your own creativity to that, you will be prepared to do a variety of things after getting a Ph.D. I’ve had Ph.D. students who have gone into law, or gotten MBAs and started their own companies.

A Ph.D. also has more of a ring to it than a master’s when getting venture capital. There’s a lot of funding (the NIH SBIR and STTR grants, for example) for small startups to develop their concepts, and academics refereeing these programs are going to look for degrees. CV, reputation, and education are important there. Once you get one of those grants, VCs will also take you more seriously. I started a small company in Alabama and we got several SBIRs to develop our technology. It was not funded as a green chemistry project, but as a tech that could be useful and could be turned into a business. If you’re going to do green chemistry and want to apply it to society, it’s likely going to be because it does something useful and it’s better than current methods. We don’t define ourselves by green chemistry; we let it guide us.

What will you be talking about at the ISGC 2015?

That’s going to be an interesting meeting. I understand green chemistry in France has really blossomed over the last few years. My talk is about alternative solvent systems and whether they’re green or not. I work with ionic liquids and they’ve been taken to the extreme in both directions—some people say they’re green, some say they’re not. At the ISGC, I’m trying to cover the debate on both sides without assumptions, just looking at the facts. I will try to look at what ionic liquids can do that nothing else can do, and then make a decision about whether it’s worth it or not, based on whether it’s green or sustainable.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, and we look forward to seeing you at the ISGC 2015!

Recommended Reading

Whitesides, G.M. Whitesides’ Group: Writing a Paper, Adv. Mater. 2004, 16, No. 15, 1375-137

contributed by Anna Ivanova

Scientist Profiles: Professor Sir Martyn Poliakoff

Editor’s note: Sir Martyn Poliakoff will be speaking at the International Symposium on Green Chemistry 2015 in La Rochelle, France on May 4th, 2015. This symposium brings together scientists from around the world to talk about the past, present, and future of green chemistry. This year’s symposium will feature nine different subfields of green chemistry and promises to be a very educational event! Registration is open here.

Martyn Poliakoff

Sir Martyn Poliakoff is a Research Professor in Chemistry at the University of Nottingham and an enthusiastic supporter of Green Chemistry. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society (2002), of the RSC (2002), and of the IChemE (2004) and awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for “Services to Sciences” in the 2007/8 New Year Honours. He is the Foreign Secretary and Vice-President of the Royal Society, and he was knighted in 2015 for his services to Chemical Sciences. His research interests involve chemical applications of supercritical fluids, with particular emphasis on Green Chemistry. He is also well known for his extensive work on The Periodic Table of Videos.

Who or what would you say has had the greatest impact on your life as a chemist?

Undoubtedly my Ph.D. supervisor, Professor J.J. Turner FRS, has played the key role not only in shaping me as a chemist, diverting my boyish enthusiasm into productive directions, but also in mentoring me for most of my professional life. Of course there have been many others: George Pimentel, the inventor of the cryogenic technique, matrix isolation, that I used at the start of my career; Alec Campbell at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne who taught me how to teach; the legendary explosives lecturer Colonel B.D. Shaw who taught me the secret of successful lecture demonstrations; and Yuri Evgenievich Gorbaty who reminded me which things are genuinely important in science. Then there have been many green chemists whose work and enthusiasm has inspired me.

How did you transition into green chemistry? Were there any challenges you had to overcome? If so, how did you address them?

Green chemistry started in the USA in the early 1990s and highlighted the need for cleaner and more sustainable solvents for chemical processes. At that time, I was working (and still am) in the area of supercritical fluids. These are gasses, such as CO2 or steam, compressed until they are nearly as dense as liquids, which have an intriguing mix of the properties of liquids and gasses. I saw an opportunity to apply them to green chemistry or “clean technology” as it was called at that time in the UK. I applied for funding and, once I got started, I was hooked! I now consider green chemistry as one of the key areas of chemistry needed to address the challenges currently facing humanity.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your role at Nottingham?

I was born in London. I had a Russian father and English mother, an Austrian nurse, and French cousins, so I have quite an international background! I studied chemistry at Cambridge and, despite poor results in my finals, I also did my Ph.D. there. I spent 7 years at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and have been at the University of Nottingham since 1979, rising through the ranks from lecturer to professor. Currently I am a so-called Research Professor in Chemistry but spend about half my time away from Nottingham as Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society, the UK’s Academy of Science. In effect, I’m an ambassador for UK science and green chemistry. At Nottingham, I lead a research group of Ph.D. students and postdocs in collaboration with my colleague, Mike George. I also teach green chemistry and am the lead presenter in the university’s highly successful YouTube channel, the Periodic Table of Videos.

What advice would you give to students or younger researchers who want to build sustainability into their scientific work and careers? How can they get support from supervisors at their university/organization?

There isn’t a “right answer” to this question. It depends on the person, where they are and what research they are doing. However, it’s important to think how one’s experiments can be altered to generate less waste and to use less toxic, if not harmless, solvents and reagents. The key to success in science is to do things that others are not doing, to have an original approach. There are no shortcuts to achieving this. One needs to read the literature, to identify the weaknesses in other people’s approaches, and then to do much thinking. With luck and inspiration, you should think of something that is cleaner, better, and original. Your discovery. Your science. Once you’ve had the idea, getting support may not be so difficult because your reaction or process will probably be cheaper, either because the chemicals are less expensive or there is less waste for costly disposal. Getting people to give you time to think of the idea in the first place may be another matter, but a combination of enthusiasm and the promise of saving money may do the trick.

Which universities you would recommend for students who want to pursue green chemistry at the undergraduate level? What about at the graduate level?

This is another hard question. At the undergrad level, the key point is to learn plenty of chemistry and, if your course allows, some chemical engineering. Ratings and university rankings are less important. Indeed, many leading universities do not even mention green chemistry in their courses. This semester I have lectured to undergraduates at Oxford, Cambridge, and Imperial College; none of them appear to teach green chemistry at the undergraduate level. By contrast, at Nottingham, we have an introductory module on Green Chemistry and Process Engineering for our first year students, taught by both chemists and chemical engineers. So, in short, you have to look at the courses available in your list of possible universities, and those courses often change year on year.

You have inspired many students through your green chemistry courses at the University of Nottingham. How well do you think universities are preparing science and engineering students to solve global challenges?

My impression, albeit from anecdotal information and my own rather selective experience, is that many universities do not spend much time discussing with students how chemistry can help with these challenges, or even what the challenges are. Admittedly, later in courses, there are research-focused lectures that may explain how an individual professor is trying to solve the problems of hydrogen storage, improved solar cells, more efficient batteries or whatever. More generally, there is a need for chemists to have more awareness of engineering and vice versa. In the UK at least, there is much less crossover than I think is desirable. It’s not just a question of preparing chemists to be green. It’s also the rather obvious fact that, if chemists continue to confine themselves to the same traditional and unchanging reactors, they are less likely to uncover revolutionary new chemistry. Fortunately, the recent move in the direction of flow or continuous chemistry is beginning to rectify the situation, although rather slowly.

You’ve been involved in a lot of interdisciplinary projects during your career. What advice would you give about getting the most out of collaborations across disciplines?

People need to collaborate because they want to and because they need that combination of expertise to solve particular problems. They should not do it just because their university or funding agency is applying pressure to do it. Forced marriages are rarely a success. On the other hand, arranged marriages can often be very happy. So you should not be shy of seeking help in finding a suitable partner to work with you in solving your problem. Whatever happens, it is important to choose a partner whom you like. If relations are sticky at the beginning, they are unlikely to get better and may well get worse. Collaborative projects can be very productive. Often the partners can do things together which neither could do by themselves.

You’ve had a huge impact through your public communication work, especially with the Periodic Table of Videos. You have also supported the spread of green chemistry in Africa, particularly in Ethiopia. How have those experiences influenced your research?

These experiences have been both enjoyable and rewarding. I first visited Ethiopia in 2003 while my son was working as a volunteer physics teacher in a high school in the relatively remote town of Hossana. During the visit, I gave a talk about green chemistry at his school, a talk that turned out to be the first on that subject in Ethiopia. Encouraged by the other teachers at the school, we visited Addis Ababa University and met a chemist there, Dr. Nigist Asfaw, who has since become a close friend. Together with Nigist and my Nottingham colleague Pete Licence, I have promoted green chemistry in Ethiopia to the point where it is being taught in several universities and has become a major area of research to Ethiopian chemists. I have also benefited because seeing conditions in some parts of Ethiopia convinced me even more of the value of green chemistry. I have become passionate about science in Africa, not just in Ethiopia. More practically, my involvement has enabled the University of Nottingham to begin training some of the next generation of Ethiopian scientists. My interest in Africa has helped me appreciate the terrible scourge of malaria, and recently, Mike George and I have been leading a photochemical research project at Nottingham to improve the process for making the antimalarial drug artemisinin.

My involvement with the Periodic Table of Videos has had less of an impact on my research, but it has been enormous fun and has taken me to many places that I would never have visited otherwise, like the Bullion Vault of the Bank of England, the Johnston Matthey noble metal refinery, or the UK National Nuclear Laboratories. It has also given me the chance to reacquaint myself with whole areas of chemistry that I had largely forgotten. Most of all, I have had the opportunity to try to communicate my enthusiasm for chemistry to a new generation of chemists around the globe.

What do you still want to achieve?

That is a somewhat terminal question! The short answer is that I want to continue doing interesting and original science for as long as I enjoy it. Who knows how long that will be? Colonel Shaw gave his last explosives lecture at the age of 92. My mother’s cousin, the distinguished medical scientist Philip D’Arcy Hart, gave his last keynote conference lecture at the age of 98 and published his last paper when he was 104! More seriously, I am keen to help photochemistry become firmly established as a routine and effective technique for manufacturing chemicals. And I would like enable supercritical fluids, especially supercritical CO2, to be widely used as a solvent in chemical processes.

Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us! We look forward to seeing you at the ISGC 2015.

contributed by Stephen Kass

Scientist Profiles: Professor Terry Collins

collins-2011-381Professor Terry Collins has been developing the interface of chemistry and sustainability since before green chemistry was a recognized discipline. Professor Collins earned his doctorate from the University of Auckland in New Zealand and conducted postdoctoral studies at Stanford University.  He taught first at Caltech and joined the faculty at Carnegie Mellon University in 1987. He started teaching green chemistry in 1992, creating the first such course by many years. Recognized internationally for both his research on TAML activators and his green chemistry education and public speaking on the chemical dimension of sustainability, Professor Collins continues to champion the cause of sustainability. He sat down with us to discuss how he got to where he is today, and the need for young researchers to actively pursue green science.

How would you describe your role at Carnegie Mellon?

I direct the Institute for Green Science, which is relatively small, but a very potent institute. We work on education, thinking about the intersection between chemistry and sustainability. We perform research in chemistry that is aimed at improving the environment, all of which is based on my TAML® activators, the first small-molecule mimics of oxidizing enzymes which arguably outperform the large biomolecules that they mimic while being less than 1% the size. We’re able to use those to decompose pollutants and do other oxidation processes, which gives us an extremely rich project space.

The third thing I focus on is trying to understand how to create a great sustainable university. We don’t have a great one anywhere yet. When I looked around when I first got to Carnegie Mellon, I thought it would be a relatively easy thing to do, but it turns out it’s not that easy. Sustainability is about bridging disciplines, and there’s no good classical funding mechanism for doing this. We’ve had to get very creative in terms of funding the kinds of activities that I’m convinced are essential to a good future for humanity.

I work on the bigger picture with other people who want to work on it, and what that does is take you out of the drillholes of chemistry and brings you into close contact with people in other drillholes. I’ve shifted my peer space from chemistry to fields like environmental health and sciences, strategic sustainability leadership, water science writ large.

My vision is very expansive. We’re really just getting going, despite some considerable accomplishments to be pleased about. In short, my role is to do everything in my power to highlight to my generation and to the younger generation that things are going to have to change if we’re to have a sustainable society.

When you first came to CMU, did you intend to take up such a multi-faceted role? Did you start out working just on green chemical research?

I came here to build up CMU’s chemistry department, and spent many years working on that. The project I started on in 1980 and have pursued ever since was actually green chemistry, I just didn’t know it was called that because the field didn’t exist at the time. In 1991, the EPA put out what was maybe the first conscious call for proposals in green chemistry, and we fit into that field. We’ve gone on to build and expand that field.

I think there is a lot more to do in that sense. The current body of green R&D is almost exclusively concerned with what goes into reaction vessels, what goes on in reaction vessels, and what comes out of reaction vessels—i.e. the development of clean reaction processes. The world-saving spaces where chemicals are concerned are energy and toxics, so we need to come up to speed on those as quickly as possible. If we don’t solve those problems, it doesn’t matter what we do with cleaning up reactions.

How did you get into green chemistry initially? Was it endocrine disruptors that got you interested in water purification?

Endocrine disruptors weren’t publicly recognized until 1991. I actually started out trying to develop a technology to disinfect water that was not chlorine-based in 1980. The idea was that if you could cheaply and effectively kill microbes with an oxygen-based technology, you would change water treatment and have a really positive effect on human health. I needed a goal like that to sustain me in my career, because as much as I love chemistry, at the end of the day it’s all about digging down into the details.

I got into green chemistry because if one can work on problems of great significance, why not? Why work on problems that you can’t convince yourself are great problems? You can say “Well, maybe I’ll discover something,” but in my experience it helps to actually focus on things that you know are great challenges.

So you started out chasing what we now call TAML activators, and then transitioned from this focused, applied research to a big-picture view of sustainability?

TAML activators actually started out as a design protocol I invented, and you had to have faith that you could produce small-molecule mimics of very large oxidizing enzymes by following this protocol. We had to do that for 15 years to eventually get to what are very simple, but highly designed TAML-activators. I started teaching green chemistry in 1992 because it just made sense to try to do this. Once we had the prototype catalyst, then we had an almost infinite landscape to look into how they work and their potential applications.

That’s what my group does: design, mechanism, and applications. I initially wanted to model those catalysts for the purpose of disinfecting water. The way you would frame the problem in the 1980’s is that you wouldn’t talk about cleaning water; you would talk about how cool the catalyst would be, because “applied” research was frowned upon by the power structure of the day. But as it’s turned out, today we can do whatever we want, and everyone is happy.

You mentioned that building a sustainable university proved to be more difficult than you anticipated. In what way?

It takes more than a course or two in chemistry for young students to come out of university with their brains configured to push the world towards sustainability. It takes a general conceptual understanding of what has to be done in all disciplines. That’s the hard part: to penetrate existing structures and get past the drive for money to get people to pursue sustainability. Basically, academics are trained to chase money, and most money today is generated by unsustainable technologies. How can university leaders resist the political pressure to improve old products and processes that can never be sustainable, and focus on finding the funding required to create entirely new ones?

Change is painful, and getting to sustainability requires a lot of change. That requires great career risks. However, I am very optimistic. Every essay I grade in my Chemistry and Sustainability class shows me that the brilliant young people who come to Carnegie Mellon University are, on the doorsteps of of their careers, enormously good-willed and open-minded. They easily understand the need to move toward more sustainable products and processes, and it moves them profoundly, which is beautiful.

What advice do you have for aspiring sustainable scientists, particularly in academia? How does one begin a career in green chemistry?

There are only a few powerful scientific places in green chemistry at the moment. It’s hard for me to say “go here” or “go there” for a green education. Considerable changes in the classical funding system are needed for sustainability to be effectively taught and perfected in universities; the current system has enormous inertia, making it nearly impossible to get grant funding for disruptive technologies and points of view. Sustainability for chemists is a steel-reinforced test of character. You have to remember to do the right thing regardless of what classical peer groups think.

There are many more researchers interested in sustainability in the younger generation than there are in the incumbent generation. In many ways, the young people need to lead the older generation in the right direction.

Thanks for talking to us, Terry!

Suggested reading:

Collins, T. J. Towards sustainable chemistry, Science2001291, 48

Collins, T.J., Introducing Green Chemistry in Teaching and Research. J. Chem. Ed., 1995, 72, 965–966.

Collins, T.J., Green Chemistry, Macmillan Encyclopedia of Chemistry. Simon and Schuster, 1997, New York, pp. 691–697

Jonas, Hans. The imperative of responsibility: in search of an ethics for the technological age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Print.

Markowitz, Gerald E., and David Rosner. Deceit and denial: the deadly politics of industrial pollution. Berkeley, Calif. London: University of California Press, 2003. Print.

contributed by Anna Ivanova