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Green Chemistry Awards Go to Vegan Leather, Chrome Plating

A coolant made from soybean oil and a more ecofriendly white paint are among the winners of the 2013 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards



Horia Varlan/Flickr

A coolant made from soybean oil and a more eco-friendly white paint are two winners of the 2013 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards announced this week.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency honored five innovative technologies that made important breakthroughs in becoming safer, cleaner and more sustainable.

Over recent decades, industries have relied on many compounds and manufacturing techniques that are toxic, consume resources, or threaten the environment. The goal of green chemistry is to develop new technologies that are not only more environmentally friendly, but commercially viable.

The awards recognize companies and technologies “not just because they have great potential, but because they have shown they can achieve that potential,” said Jim Jones, EPA Assistant Administrator for Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.

“What really strikes me about this year’s winners is how successful some of them have already been in the marketplace,” he said.

Martin Mulvihill, executive director of the University of California's Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry, said the winners “represent concrete improvements in reducing the environmental impacts of the chemicals industry.”

One of the five awards went to Cargill, Inc., for its soybean-oil based substitute for petroleum-based oils used as coolants in electrical transformers.

“We’ve done cradle-to-grave analysis showing that this product is carbon neutral, non-toxic and non-hazardous,” said Dave Roesser, Cargill's general manager of dielectric fluids.

More than 500,000 transformers in the U.S. – roughly 10 percent of the market – currently use the technology, which has been sold commercially since 1998, he said.

Roesser said the technology, called Envirotemp FR3, is less flammable than mineral oils and can extend the operational life of the insulation.

Coolants are important to ensure that large, high-voltage electrical equipment doesn’t overheat. Some of these compounds can persist in the environment or have toxic effects. Petroleum-based mineral oils replaced polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which were used in transformers until they were banned in the late 1970s.

Dow Chemical Co., of Midland, Mich., was awarded for a new technology that reduces the amount of energy and water used to make white pigments for paint, and cuts its emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gases.

“We’ve improved paint performance properties such as stain resistance and durability while using less titanium dioxide,” wrote Dow Vice President Neil Hawkins in an email.

Titanium dioxide is usually added to most paint as a white pigment to hide the color of a painted material. But the compound is costly and energy-intensive. A new Dow polymer improves how the pigment is dispersed so less of it is necessary in paint. In exterior house paint, the new technique reduces the paint's carbon footprint by more than 22 percent, its water consumption by 30 percent and its air pollutants by 24 percent, company officials said, based on a third-party assessment.

In the academic category, Richard Wool, chemical engineering professor at the University of Delaware, won for using chicken feathers, vegetable oils, flax and other bio-based, renewable feedstocks to make composite materials.These materials can replace plastics and other petroleum-based products and be used for a variety of purposes, such as adhesives, foams and computer circuit boards.

One of Wool's inventions is a breathable vegan leather that avoids traditional tanning processes. His company, Eco-Leather, is working with athletic shoe companies to market it. Since 1992, he has received five patents, and a chemical company has produced his resins for a worldwide market.

An award also went to Life Technologies Corp, a biomedical company in Austin, Texas, for pioneering a less-wasteful way to manufacture chemicals used in genetic testing.

Those chemicals used in genetics are important for food safety, basic research, disease identification and other uses. But manufacturing them usually produces a lot of wastes because of high solvent use. The company’s new technique reduces solvent use by 95 percent, and eliminates 1.5 million pounds of hazardous waste each year from its manufacturing plant.

In addition, the company says its process of producing the chemicals is now fairly simple, describing it as “three-step, one-pot.”

Faraday Technology, Inc., of Clayton, Ohio, was recognized in the small business category for a less-toxic form of chrome plating – the kind used in manufacture of high-performance parts such as airplane components. Its technique replaces hexavalent chromium, a highly potent carcinogen, with trivalent chromium, which is less toxic and non-carcinogenic. It is considered a breakthrough because it provides the performance required for specialized military and industrial parts, according to the EPA’s report.

Mulvihill said these awards don’t guarantee a perfect process or perfect chemical but they do show that industry is heading in the right direction.

Over the past 18 years, the EPA has received 1,500 entries and awarded 93 technologies. Every year, innovations from previous award winners eliminate enough hazardous chemicals to fill a train of railroad tank cars 47 miles long and save 27 billion gallons of water, according to the EPA.

A panel of technical experts convened by the American Chemical Society, the largest scientific society in the country with more than 163,000 members, selected the 2013 winners.

The technologies are evaluated for their environmental impacts over their entire life cycle – from the start of production to the disposal of wastes.

Being a successful green chemist means changing the usual mindset, said Terry Collins, director for the Institute for Green Science at Carnegie Mellon University and past Presidential Green Chemistry award winner.

“It requires a basic change in attitude from thinking not only about how to make a high performance product to understanding what it means not to injure life with chemical products. It’s enormously interdisciplinary,” he said.

This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

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