Slowly, the chemical industry is going green.
Many companies are starting to emphasize reducing or eliminating hazardous substances to save money, reduce inefficiencies and promote their brands to consumers who favor eco-friendly products.
"Industry really sees the value of 'green chemistry,'" said Julie Haack, assistant head of the University of Oregon's chemistry department. "If you want to recruit the best chemists, wouldn't it make sense to promote the opportunity to work in an environment where they can align their interest in the environment with their passion, which is chemistry?"
Having employees concerned about sustainability leads to more innovative, long-term solutions, said Neil Hawkins, vice president for sustainability at Dow Chemical Co.
"It's very important to us to have a pipeline of the best and the brightest students in science and technology, but that also have a broader perspective, as well, so they can understand the tradeoffs," Hawkins said. "This means balancing environmental, social and economic decisions."
Many universities are responding by creating a green-chemistry curriculum. Their efforts require addressing what green chemistry advocates call a fundamental problem in chemistry education: a lack of toxicology training.
"Students can earn a doctoral degree in chemistry in nearly every university in the country and not have to demonstrate a basic understanding of toxicology or eco-toxicology – how to design a molecule that doesn't disrupt the endocrine in some way," said Michael Wilson, assistant research scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.
But students, faculty and industry are starting to change that by pushing for programs and courses about alternate design principles, slowly shifting chemistry education.
The University of Oregon – a leader in the movement – began an outreach program nine years ago that teaches professors nationwide about integrating green chemistry into a curriculum. Haack said that effort has driven up demand for green-chemistry courses nationwide and has led to changes in how students and faculty approach chemistry.
"We've seen subtle shifts," Haack said in an interview. "Instead of students questioning the mechanics of something, now they're thinking about chemistry as a tool for sustainability. They're excited about the possibility of designing out hazards."