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.

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