A new chemical journal was distributed at the recent ACS meeting. It is called ChemSusChem and is a European effort published by Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. The theme is chemistry and sustainability. Librarians and Deans will surely groan when they hear a new chemical journal is available. I don’t know what an institutional subscription costs, but they all seem to be very expensive.

More than a few of us are convinced that we are presently watching a slow motion movie of the de-industrialization of the European Union. Many will scoff at the appearance of another greenish journal, especially from the EU. Indeed, the EU does seem hell-bent on outsourcing its basic industry to other parts of the planet with lower overhead costs. But cost doesn’t seem to be the only driver.

The EU has become a confederation of nanny states, all seemingly pre-occupied with the extermination of risk (and the US is on the way as well).  Some of it is legitimate, I believe, but to a significant extent some of the EU fussing with environmental issues is due to an inability to come to terms with ppm-level risk. Thus REACH.

The effect of REACH may be that this de-industrialization is accelerated. I am now involved in trying to understand REACH and how it affects exports to the EU.  For smaller companies who do not have the administrative structure to accomodate a new shelf of complex regulations, this is a genuine burden. Not just in terms of direct labor to manage it, but also the associated liability of non-compliance.

So, back to sustainable chemistry. The basic idea of sustainability provides for minimizing ecological insult and maximizing the long term availability of natural resources. It is hard to argue with the merits of this. But I would take it a step further.  Sustainable chemistry can easily accomodate advantageous economics if it is executed right.

Advantageous how?

Turns out that the principles of sustainability run in parallel with many good operating practices in process development.  High space yields, good atom efficiency, minimum energy inputs, solvent recycling, hazard abatement, etc. All of these ideals add up to maximum economic benefit.  It is just a form of frugality.

The people who can implement sustainable chemical processing are R&D and process chemists and engineers.  By adding more frugal methodologies to our toolkits, we can put sustainability into practice. The direct benefit would be better process economics. The larger benefit is a better competitive posture for industry that has chosen to remain in the EU or North America.

Sustainable principles applied to process chemistry can be a “next wave” of innovation that can lead to a re-think by business leaders in the eternal chess game of industry.  A tidy bit of “sustainable chemistry” has already been published. We chemists should filter through this to see what may be applicable.

Of course, if our academic friends have been busy beavering away writing patents on it, then it will be a much harder sell to management.  But that is another post.