It has been predicted that we will need enough water, food and energy to sustain a population as high as 9.8 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by the turn of the century. The key to meeting these challenges will be continued advances in chemistry, chemical engineering, and materials science and engineering. Their products are ubiquitous in our daily lives – from pharma and biomedical technologies to electronics, and communications to transportation and infrastructure. As discoveries continue to be made and technologies advance, how do we ensure the health and well-being of our people and the planet for generations to come?
Increasingly, the grand challenges identified in the 2016 United Nations report are driving new research initiatives. Reports such as that recently released from the 2016 NSF Workshop related to polymer science and engineering discuss those challenges within the context of a somewhat more focused discipline. Note one of the grand challenges identified in that report: “Achieve accessible, scalable polymers that match or exceed the property matrix of existing materials, yet have a green life-cycle.” The authors go further to point out the importance of life-cycle thinking.
To continue to grow and support our economy, the chemical enterprise needs an agile, flexible workforce that thinks ‘systems and sustainability’. Quite simply, global regulations require businesses/ industries to adopt practices that support a circular economy. In a 2016 briefing, the European Parliamentary Research Service discussed “opportunities and challenges” for moving towards a circular economy. One of the four identified challenges was the need for technical skills “which are currently not present in the workforce”; namely, skills for scientists and engineers that would enable them to design products with circularity in mind. It emphasises that the lack of such skills would be particularly problematic for scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. Thus, the roles and responsibilities of chemists, chemical engineers and materials scientists and engineers extend not only to the life of products in the market but importantly, to the “end of life” and environmental fate of those products.
Leading chemical and pharma companies or, company associations have established sustainability programs to assess their products and manufacturing processes. In some cases, they have developed their own special toolboxes, while in others they have utilized existing tools and databases. Table 1 presents a handful of examples that have been reported recently. All are used to assess the sustainability of existing products, manufacturing processes, and services as well as ideas in the early stages of research and development.
The American Chemical Society (ACS) Green Chemistry Institute (GCI) and a group of major pharma companies founded the GCI Pharmaceutical Roundtable in 2005 with the goal of promoting green and sustainable chemistry and chemical engineering believing that green chemistry and engineering are imperative, and the Roundtable is pursuing the implementation of green chemistry and engineering into all facets of drug production from discovery and development to manufacturing. In a paper titled ‘Expanding the Boundaries: Developing a Streamlined Tool for Eco-Footprinting of Pharmaceuticals’ authors describe the development of “a streamlined Process Mass Intensity (PMI) and Live Cycle Assessment (LCA) tool” for use by chemists and chemical engineers in discovery and process development stages in pharmaceutical and chemical industries. The PMI is the quantitative measure of the mass of raw materials, solvents, catalysts, reagents, water, and anything else that is used for producing a specific amount of a target compound.
Alternatively, quantification of all the materials involved in the synthesis of a specific amount of material could also be achieved by capturing all these quantities in a spreadsheet and determining the fate of all materials after the separation of the target compound. The same approach could be applied to scale up and pilot plant operations. The resulting intensity numbers (mass, solvent, water, waste, etc.) identify the ‘hotspots’ in the synthesis or process and provide opportunities for environmental and economical improvements. The mass intensities can be calculated for each step of a multistep synthesis or a manufacturing process.
The PMI tool was used by the Roundtable members for assessing synthetic and manufacturing processes and “internal benchmarking” and for collaborating with other companies and suppliers throughout the supply chain. This very valuable tool is available on the ACSGCI website (https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/greenchemistry/research-innovation/tools-forgreen-chemistry.html ).
LCA quantifies the environmental impacts of a product or manufacturing process and, also identifies the environmental ‘hotspots’ and opportunities for rendering the process more sustainable. As indicated in Table 1, leading chemical and pharma companies have developed their own tools for life cycle assessment of their products and manufacturing processes and expect such data from their suppliers throughout their supply chain. For example, pharma products are delivered to consumers in a wide range of materials including plastics. Although plastics have provided safe delivery of pharma products to the market, their persistence in the environment is a major concern. Search for biodegradable materials for safe delivery of pharma products has been underway for a few decades. The desired materials should meet a complex set of specification in addition to biodegradability and the search for biodegradable plastics to replace existing products continues. At the same time, major efforts are directed at recycling waste plastics into economically viable valuable products. For either case, it is necessary to apply cradle to cradle (CtC) life cycle assessment to better understand the environmental footprints and overall sustainability of these products.
In 2005, the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies released a report detailing eight grand challenges that must be addressed to secure a long term sustainable future; and the broad concept of sustainability has caught the attention of many leaders in the scientific, engineering, industrial and regulatory communities. Sustainability education which was called out as one of the eight grand challenges in the 2006 National Academies report, is of paramount importance to instilling ‘life-cycle thinking” into product and process design and development. Examples of how one might implement sustainability within science and engineering curricula are beginning to emerge. In 2009, Murphy et.al. reported the results of their benchmarking studies on the incorporation of principles of green engineering into engineering curricula across the US. Allen and Shonnard provided a perspective on the knowledge base required for chemical engineering education. As the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute (ACS GCI) Roadmap vision statement aptly pointed out, “the practice of chemistry should change from chemistry focused on academic and economic value with minimal regard for environmental, safety, or health impacts; to process and product design to minimize adverse environmental, health, and safety impacts while enhancing desired performance throughout the product life cycle.” To continue to grow and support our economy, the chemical enterprise needs an agile, flexible workforce that thinks ‘systems and sustainability’.
Quite simply, global regulations require businesses/ industries to adopt practices that support a circular economy. In a 2016 briefing, the European Parliamentary Research Service discussed “opportunities and challenges” for moving towards a circular economy. One of the four identified challenges was the need for technical skills “which are currently not present in the workforce”; namely, skills for scientists and engineers that would enable them to design products with circularity in mind. It emphasises that the lack of such skills would be particularly problematic for scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. Thus, the roles and responsibilities of chemists, chemical engineers and materials scientists and engineers extend not only to the life of products in the market but importantly, to the “end of life” and environmental fate of those products.
Motivated by the recognised societal need for the design and development of sustainable chemical, pharmaceutical, and materials technologies, coupled with the need for scientists and engineers to be educated in life cycle thinking, we developed a course entitled “Fundamentals & Challenges of a Sustainable Chemical Enterprise”. It was first introduced in Spring 2015 at the Chemical Engineering Department of Louisiana State University and since 2017 at the School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In 2018, this course was added to the Professional Masters in Manufacturing Leadership program at Georgia Institute of Technology which is offered to industry professionals as an emerging process in chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing.
At Suraksha, we offer training and support to innovation, entrepreneurship, technology development, and commercialisation. Suraksha is an all-volunteer run organisation supporting sustainable innovation for protecting the environment. We offer professional training programs including ISO training and certifications, software, along with mentoring, consulting and commercialisation support. Suraksha is determined to empower one million entrepreneurs.