Sustainability through Green Chemistry

Last year I applied for and successfully won a scholarship to attend the first IUPAC Postgraduate Summer School n Green Chemistry. (1) The event was held in Venice from the 11th to the 18th of July. It was an incredible experience that allowed me to learn more about sustainability, green innovation, monetise your scientific breakthrough and networking from people from everywhere in the world. In fact, I was pleasingly surprised to see so much diversity, every continent was represented, and loads of loads of students with the common goal of changing and challenging the current state of things.

IMG_20180711_213813_917Why a meeting on Green Chemistry? Last year, UNESCO stated that everyone, not only scientists, NEEDS green chemistry to pave the way towards a sustainable development. In fact, chemistry is the science behind every single process on earth and we can’t shape a new future without a deep understanding of how stuff is made. For example, one of the main points of sustainability is recycling. What we learned there during those days was to revaluate this idea and talk about bringing value to waste instead. Smelly, dirty and ugly rubbish is an incredible source of valuable stuff.

Everyone NEEDS green chemistry to pave the way towards a sustainable development

The leather industry produces loads of waste. How to bring value to this? By understanding the chemical composition of it. Leather is animal skin that contains loads of collagen. This is one of the main ingredients of pharmaceuticals, cosmetics etc. Researchers at the University of Cordoba, Spain, managed to extract collagen from leather waste and procure polymer films for wound healing and these films found application in some hospitals in Spain. (2)

Microbeads are tiny pieces of plastics used in almost all detergents. They are a treat for aquatic animals and there’s no way to remove them from water. In fact, due to their small size, they pass through the common filters used in water purification systems. Cellulose, one of the most abundant polymer in nature, is also one of the biggest waste of the wood industry. It’s incredibly strong and has similar physical properties as plastic. Researchers at the University of Bath development a whole new process to create sustainable microbeads by using wood waste in an alternative to the plastic ones. (3)

Reclying should be seen as bringing value to waste

IMG_20180713_094144_803One of the best moments of the summer school was meeting Michael Graetzel, professor at l’École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. He published an important paper on Nature in 1991 about the use of metal oxides as material for solar panels. Taking inspiration from the best example of Chemistry we have, nature, prof Graetzel designed a device that is able to convert solar energy in electricity by mimicking the photosynthesis. (4) The device is made of a thin layer of titanium dioxide and a dye which is put on top to absorb the solar radiation. After 27 years of work and research since the first prototype, they managed to bring this device into the market. The reason why he succeeded commercialising the device competing with the giants of energy and fossil fuels is their unique selling point, USP, in business words. This device is very colourful due to the presence of dye. They look nice and fancy which I something unique among the energy devices at the moment. I was so pleased to see that the Graetzel solar cells made their way to market because my first ever research project as an undergraduate student at the University of Rome was on the DSSCs.

Science means business too and green technologies are a great way to support economy in a eco-friendly way

The message I got away from the summer school is that science need resilience and perseverance, brilliant minds and people willing to change the things. How do we achieve this? Science is a tree and every discipline are a branch of the tree. We need the contribution of everyone, engineer, biophysics, biology, mathematics, computer science and work together to achieve a more sustainable future. Science needs and belongs to everyone.

(1) Pure and Applied Chemistry, 90, 2, p. 235-237 3 p

(2) Green Chem., 2012, 14, 308-312

(3) Continuous Production of Cellulose Microbeads via Membrane Emulsification

(4) Nature, 1991, 353, 737.