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  3. [2022-09-30] Large interest for green and sustainable chemistry at the Mistra SafeChem symposium
News | 2022-09-30
To the left, a man talking on a screen. To the let, a screen showing the words Green chemistry for a sustainable world.

Paul Anastas had, due to covid, to talk from his library in USA instead of coming to the Mistra SafeChem symposium at AstraZeneca in Mölndal. (Photo: Helena Larsson)

Large interest for green and sustainable chemistry at the Mistra SafeChem symposium

How can we reduce people's and the environment's exposure to hazardous substances? That question was the focus of The Mistra SafeChem Symposium on Green and Sustainable Chemistry, which was held at AstraZeneca in Mölndal on September 26, 2022.
Now you can watch a recording from the symposium (see link at the bottom).

The moderators Ulrica Edlund, Professor at KTH, and Lennart Bergström, Professor at Stockholm University, welcomed the 100 persons on-site and 150 digital attendees to the symposium.

The keynote speaker for the day was Professor Paul Anastas, Yale University, also known as “The father of green chemistry”. But he had to perform his speech digitally instead of coming to Mölndal:

– Do take covid seriously – I am living in my library, he said.

Despite that, he gave an inspiring lecture on green chemistry for a sustainable world.

“Sell the chemical as a service!”

– I love chemistry and am proud to be a chemist. But we need to change how we think about chemistry, Paul Anastas said.

– The largest product of the chemical industry is carbon dioxide. And hundreds of the chemical products that we’ve made are in our blood and accumulating in our bodies.

He stressed the fact that nature is dynamic, not stable. That must affect the way materials are produced, they need to adapt to nature.

– Remember, no one ever bought a chemical, they bought a performance. So sell it as a service!

Paul Anastas concluded with a hopeful quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would more than suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.”​

The innovative chemistry of Mistra SafeChem

The ongoing work of Mistra SafeChem was presented by three of its researchers.

Ian Cotgreave, professor from RISE, talked about the tools that are being developed and refined within the research programme. He emphasized the utility of computational tools, which are inexpensive and quickly can generate new data for decision-making. They are trained with known experimental data so they can predict unknown chemical effects.

– The use of artificial intelligence-based methodology makes it possible for the tools to teach themselves about different hazards, such as carcinogenicity, Ian Cotgreave said and stressed that the toolbox is open to everyone.

“I love enzymes”

Per-Olof Syrén, Associate Professor at KTH, declared his love for enzymes, as they speed up the chemical reactions and fit well into the twelve principles for green chemistry.

One of his examples was about how to make biopolymers from biomass:

– We take a different approach and learn from nature. We use what is already there and make materials that have a different structure to make them recyclable, Per-Olof Syrén said.

To find enzymes that are better adapted to the higher temperature and harsher conditions used in chemical production, the team look at pre-historic enzymes. These had to function in much more extreme conditions than today’s enzymes and therefore should be more resilient. This work has successfully resulted in enzymes with much higher temperature tolerances than the ones found in nature today.

– We are trying to combine chemistry with enzymes to develop a toolbox from this, including an engineered microbe.

Upcycling of textiles is possible

Europeans consume on average 26 kg of textiles per person per year, of this 75 percent end up in landfills or are incinerated. Once in landfills, natural fibres can take hundreds of years to decompose and release methane and CO2 into the atmosphere.

Aji Mathew, Professor at Stockholm University, is leading a study on textile recycling. By using sulphuric acid hydrolysis​ they can produce cellulose nanocrystals from cotton or mixed fabric.

– We have got good cellulose nanocrystal yields of very high purity and no decrease in molecular quality. From this, we can produce ideal “building blocks” for a wide range of high-value-added applications.​ This means upcycling of textiles.

The team now takes on the challenge to optimize the process, aiming to make it even greener. By collaboration within the Mistra SafeChem programme valuable knowledge about safety and sustainability is gained, making it possible to evaluate the process beyond the traditional evaluation criteria like chemical purity and yield.

– The research of textile recycling under Mistra SafeChem has shown promising results concerning​ the separation of textiles into components and recovery of cellulose and polymers​, and processing of nanocellulose from cellulose fraction, Aji Mathew declared.​

A synthesis of great importance in the pharmaceutical industry

Lutz Ackermann, Professor from Göttingen, is the founder and director of the Woehler Research Institute for Sustainable Chemistry. He talked about sustainable molecular synthesis by catalyzed C-H activation.

By enabling reactions on the inherently unreactive C-H bond a great abundance of a complex molecule could be made. A particularly important application of this method is the late-stage functionalization of drug candidates, enabling chemists to make several variants from one common scaffold. This means that a synthetic pathway doesn’t have to start from scratch every time a small variation in a molecule is wanted and can drastically decrease the chemical consumption and innovation time needed in pharmaceutical development.

A sad jubilee

The last of the invited speakers was Stewart Owen, Principal Environmental Scientist at AstraZeneca. He started his talk with the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, which was published in 1962.

– It is a sad 60-year jubilee. At that time at least some people knew about climate change, and yet so little has been done.

To reverse the trend we need greener design, process, manufacture, and distribution. We also need greener pharmaceuticals for more sustainable healthcare.

– To succeed we must have a more inclusive and holistic approach​, Stewart Owen said.

He also ended with a sad undertone:

– When we have fixed climate change, we will still be dealing with pollution.

“A superhero with superpowers”

Richard Lihammar, IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute, is programme director for Mistra SafeChem. He ended the symposium on a more positive note:

– I am a chemist, which means I am a superhero with superpowers! Chemistry is needed in so many fields. But we need to see already in the design phase what the effect might be. Would we have decided to use DDT, PFAS or fossil fuels if they were invented today?

He emphasized how persons in Mistra SafeChem learn from each other and that the whole value chain is represented among the industry partners.

– We put different functionalities in the same room, add a toolbox and see very interesting results, Richard Lihammar described the work.

And the future of green chemistry looks bright, at least judging by the skills of the research students who displayed their results on posters in the mingling area during the symposium. You can see five of the posters via this link.