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Green chemistry catches on at Memorial

By Kelly Foss

When one thinks about a “green” Memorial, the first place that springs to mind ay not be the Department of Chemistry. However over the past three years, Dr. Fran Kerton, an assistant professor with the department, has begun collaborating with students and faculty to change that perception.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, green chemistry, also known as sustainable chemistry, is the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances. The goal is to create safer products, reduce demand on energy and resources and waste.

“The easiest analogy for green chemistry is that it’s a bit like medicine, where with many diseases if you eat healthy and take preventative action, you won’t have to treat the disease itself,” she said. “In the chemical industry we have a lot of accidents related to pollution or chemicals entering the environment. Whereas if we go back to the very beginning of the process, we can try and stop those chemicals or accidents from happening in the first place.”

One area she’s particularly involved in at Memorial University is solvent replacement – replacing commonly used solvents in laboratories with something more environmentally friendly.

“Many of the common solvents used are petroleum based, and everyone knows petroleum is flammable,” said Dr. Kerton. “If we can use new solvents that aren’t flammable, such as water – which is nature’s solvent - then we aren’t going to have fires, explosions or things like that happening.”

In addition, solvent replacement reduces the amount of atmospheric pollution in labs and reduces students’ exposure to it. It also handles the problem of what to do with the chemical later – a solvent that is just water can be poured down the sink.

Dr. Kerton says green chemistry is a relatively young field, having only recently caught on in Canada in the last five or six years. One area she’s found that has generated a lot of attention throughout the department is microwave chemistry.

“Instead of putting something in an oven for 20-30 minutes, you can save a lot of energy by cooking it in the microwave for two or three minutes,” she said. “The same thing works with chemical reactions, many of which need to be heated to get started. If you can use a microwave instead you can do a reaction in a few minutes that would normally take several hours or even days. Obviously you can’t just use a household microwave oven to do chemistry, you need a special one and I’ve had a lot of professors show an interest in using our microwave reactor.”

The research area has been catching on with students as well.

“I collaborate a lot with Dr. Chris Kozak and our research group is growing a lot,” said Dr. Kerton. “It doubles in size during the summer because in addition to our graduate students we have a number of undergraduate students join us as well. The undergraduate students haven’t really been taught about green chemistry in their curriculum so they really take this field and run with it. They get really excited.”

Dr. Kerton also sees great potential for partnerships with industry around green chemistry, from addressing the use of shrimp waste in new materials, to collaborating with oil and gas companies.

“Many green chemistry advances come from legislation changes within the province,” she said. “People now have to be more careful with their wastes and not dump things. That’s another opportunity for green chemists, even as far as household waste such as the oil from your deep fat fryer. Researchers can take oils from fast food places and convert it into biodiesel. That’s sustainable development and I think green chemistry like this could be good for Newfoundland and Labrador. We’re a rather remote location and we should think more about how to reuse certain waste products and make it into something of value.”