Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £29.99 £19.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

Living in an unsustainable box

Watch this video to find out how Professor Pete Licence thinks legislation and good practice are driving industry towards sustainability.
Hi, Pete. Hi, how are you? I’m very well, thank you. Good. I’ve been talking to several of your colleagues this morning, obviously, about things chemistry. Now, there’s an MSE, isn’t there? Yeah, absolutely. That’s for green and sustainable chemistry. Can you just give me a sense of what’s in it and the graduates that you’re going to produce? Are they going to be sustainable chemists? Well, I rather hope that everyone in the future will be a sustainable chemist. Because, really, if we’re not becoming sustainable, we’re going to have some serious questions and some serious problems as a society.
But the course that we’ve got really does showcase some of the best examples and best opportunities of synthesis, analytical methods, and I suppose cleaner or more appropriate ways of making molecules, the things that everybody uses, things like that are in my cup, perhaps the glasses, or the contact lenses that I’m wearing now. At the moment, we make lots and lots of products, millions of products, from a very small number of starting materials. The problem is we don’t use them very efficiently. And we make a lot of waste.
Behind sustainable chemistry, I suppose, is the key principle that we want to try and reduce the amount of waste that we make, increase the efficiency of the process, make the processes safer so that we can actually benefit in many, many ways as a society. I think the course will essentially educate people with the best and the most appropriate ways of taking things forward, to be decision-makers and perhaps policy changers in industry over the next 10 or 15 years. Because without these people, we can’t continue to consume all of these materials at the rate that we do. And so what are the hot topics in sustainable chemistry research? What are the hot topics? What an amazing question.
I suppose hot topics are really in energy, making energy, using energy, moving energy quickly and efficiently, how we use our atoms in the most appropriate way, how we might use benign materials like iron as a catalyst to do really, really quite elegant transformations. Currently, we use precious metals and things like palladium and platinum. And we have to dig massive holes in the ground to get these atoms out. I recently saw a picture of a gold mine which also produces platinum and palladium in Australia. And the hole in the ground was big enough to put the whole island of Venice into. It was a ridiculously’ large hole to make catalysts and jewellery.
If we can use iron, it’s much much, more benign, much, much easier for us to use, and much better for the environment. Green chemistry and sustainable chemistry is all about making products in a much more sustainable and more environmentally benign way. But I’m a little bit worried at the moment that as our supply of hydrocarbons changes, as the profile of those hydrocarbons changes, perhaps as we move to shale gas which offers abundant and cheap materials, will actually polarise green chemistry and sustainability. And I think that the debate about shale gas really needs to be really opened up and debated in the truest sense. Fracking and the environment impacts of fracking really are new to us.
And we really need to think and be very cautious about the way we move forward. So how many years do you think will need to pas before the whole chemistry profession and industry will be green or sustainable? I think chemistry is making good moves toward being sustainable. Legislation and good practise is actually driving towards that now. I suppose if you look at it more holistically, chemistry and the chemical using community can only become sustainable when consumers become more sustainable. People have to use the atoms more efficiently. They have to use their products more efficiently, and think about reuse and recycle, and perhaps being a little bit more aware of environmental stewardship.
I suppose if you think about it, in its crudest sense, on the planet Earth we’re just living in a box. And all of the atoms that we have to use for any function are in the box with us. So when we use them, we generate wastes. And the waste stays in the box with us. So unless we want huge piles of waste and not very many atoms, we’ve really got to get on top of our game. That is a great link, actually, you’ve just given me there, Pete. Because I know the next person I want to go and talk to is Sally about consumer behaviour. So thanks very much. A pleasure.

Pete Licence is Professor of Chemistry and Director of The GlaxoSmithKline Carbon Neutral Laboratory at Nottingham. He feels that both legislation and good practice are driving industry towards sustainability, both in terms of production processes and design. Satish Kumar would add that changes in consumer behaviour are doing this too.

Listen to Pete talking about his own profession, the next generation of chemists and their role in environmental stewardship before –

Those of you in China can also view this video on our Tudou channel.

Think about: What is going on in your own profession or occupation – is sustainability taking hold here too?

This article is from the free online

Sustainability, Society and You

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now