Eco-friendly, cost-effective green chemistry taking roots

Eco-friendly, cost-effective green chemistry taking roots

In short, ways and means are being searched to clean up the mess created by ‘dirty chemistry.’ There are endless instances of the damages done by chemicals, forceful closure of chemical units following their hazardous presence, and classic examples like the banning of DDT after reports of its ill-effects on environment and wildlife.

‘Damn the chemists and to hell with chemistry’ goes the public outcry on many occasions. Not too long ago, a reputed pharmaceutical company in Andhra Pradesh — the largest producer of the most cost-effective anti-ulcer drug Ranitidine — had to face closure following notice by the pollution control board.

The horrendous smelling dimethyl sulfide generated while producing the drug was said to be detrimental to both health and environment. This was only one example as in every state the residents have faced one or the other problem caused by chemical waste or obnoxious odour.

The public outrage, however, is only one side of the coin for we cannot probably imagine our lives without chemicals.  Right from soap, paper, starch, vegetable oils, ghee, tannery, distillery, cosmetics, rubber, computer chips to plastics and petroleum, there is hardly anything without a chemical touch. Shouldn’t we also be thankful to chemistry for the innovations in the pharmaceutical industry that has enhanced life expectancy and produced miracle drugs for many ailments?
Amidst repeated echoes of ‘damn chemistry’ playing up with environment and hampering sustainable development, the future, however, doesn’t appear to be all that dismal. A silver lining has emerged with the new approach for the design and synthesis of chemicals.

A new concept called ‘Green Chemistry’ — eagerly sought after by engineering sciences, including biology and the energy industry — is catching the fancy of scientists working in all branches of chemistry — organic, inorganic, physical, analytical and biochemistry. In the initial phase, green chemists have already replaced highly toxic and hazardous solvents with green solvents like ionic liquids, super critical CO2 and water.

Green chemistry or sustainable chemistry has been around for more than a decade but it gained momentum with the launch of ‘Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry’ by Prof Paul T Anastas and Prof John C Warner in 1998 in the US. It is now being explored and used by many countries including UK, Canada, Australia and Germany. Being one of the leading producers of pesticides and pharmaceutics, India has also realised the need to go green.

Acceptance in industry

Having achieved tremendous success since its inception and the industries also warmly accepting it, green chemistry has already saved millions of dollars in resources and clean up expenses. In addition to reducing a great amount of toxic waste and saving billions of gallons of water, it has also significantly helped in reducing greenhouse gases. New fields of investigation like new synthetic and analytical methodologies, new approaches to molecular design, new solvent systems and new catalysts have been launched in green chemistry. It has showed environmental benefits, exhibited superior product performance and is also cost-effective.

What are the barriers then?  Prof Warner, hailed as the father of green chemistry, feels that innovations are needed not only in beakers and flasks, but also in the organisations surrounding them.

Addressing scientists and students at the just concluded workshop on green chemistry at the University of Rajasthan, Jaipur, Prof Warner stressed on the need for an interdisciplinary approach and effective collaboration between industry, academics, government, NGOs and society in general.

At a time when the chemical industry is as big as $3 trillion and hundreds of chemicals impacting human life every day, it is essential to strike the right balance between society, environment and economics. With India’s growing industrial capacities in large scale production of petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, pesticides and various other consumer durables, there is a need for practicing green chemistry extensively.

The era of best green practices has already dawned. SMS pharmaceutics has won acclaim for its green practices from the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum. Dr Reddy’s Laboratories Ltd has recently joined the Green Chemistry Institute Pharmaceutical Roundtable of the American Chemical Society.

The concept is also being extensively promoted by the department of science and technology’s Green Chemistry Task Force by sponsoring academic events and seminars in universities and colleges.

A Green Chemistry Network Centre (GCNC) is working at Delhi University to build a network for exchange of expertise and dissemination of knowledge through study materials.

Green chemistry is often mistaken for environmental chemistry, which is actually the chemistry of the natural environment, that of pollutant chemicals in nature. Green chemistry, in fact, focuses on minimising and preventing pollution at its point of origin to achieve maximum efficiency of any given chemical choice.

Concerted efforts are also needed to change the mindset and practices prevalent in school and college curricula. It is time to move on from conventional methods of analysis to greener methods, even  if that means bidding goodbye to familiar odours like H2S from classroom laboratories!