It could be said that the field of green chemistry was born with the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990. Eighteen years later, the government is finally taking some serious interest with the passage of The Green Chemistry Research & Development Act (S. 2669). This act would involve cooperation of several federal agencies for the common goal of developing environmentally friendly chemicals.
A new group of green chemists was already hard at work discovering new ways to deal with pollution. Many exciting discoveries have come about after years of careful lab studies and molecular manipulations modeled on observation of nature’s own methods.
Every day, countless harmful chemicals are released into groundwater and water ways. Big cities and their factories are not necessarily the only culprits – farms and paper mills also play their part in both water and air pollution.
Many times people do not realize that chemicals poured on the ground or on pastures and gardens have an effect on the waterways – rivers, streams and even the oceans. These end up in our water supply or in the food chain.
Solutions from Nature: Enzymes
The Earth has existed a lot longer than any human being, so we should not be surprised that we can learn much by simply observing nature at work. This was how a group of scientists were able to apply the action of nature’s enzymes toward a solution for cleaning up the messes we have made on the Earth.
Enzymes are the same catalysts that help break down our food, whether in saliva, or by popping a “Beano” before your meal. The next time you are in the store, look at the products that promote digestion – you will find that the main or only ingredient is some type of enzyme. Enzymes quickly break things down, dissolving them, rendering them harmless or “clean” – whether in human beings or nature in general.
Of course, the best pollution solution would be prevention. Prevention in this case would require altering our way of life both on the personal and corporate level by coming up with and using eco-friendly alternatives.
The Problem of Applying a Natural Solution to an Unnatural Problem
If the planet was in its natural state and everything was where it belonged there would be less of a problem. Pollution is largely a problem resulting from elements being in places where they were never meant to be. In other words, nature was set up to be self-healing as long as the surroundings were in their “natural form” and location. Humankind has upset this balance.
This has left green scientists with a dilemma of sorts. However a group of scientists found the answer by mimicking nature in the form of synthetic enzymes using the catalytic power of nature’s combination of hydrogen peroxide and oxygen.
Terrence J. Collins, Thomas Lord Professor of Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University and his team spent 15 years of meticulous research and molecular manipulations coming up with what would be known as tetra-amidomacrocylclic-ligand activators (TAML). These TAMLs could be tailored to suit the purpose at hand with hundreds of possibilities.
Possible Uses of TAMLs
The Carnegie Mellon Institute for Green Oxidation Chemistry lists some uses of catalyst activation of hydrogen peroxide as:
- Breaking down Phenols (poisonous mass obtained from coal tar, or a derivative of benzene) in water
- Decrease the color of pulp and paper effluent (waste). Without which the effluent’s color would block sun from penetrating the water, resulting in consequences for plant and other aquatic life
- Cut down pulp and paper mill’s odor
- Rapid killing of biological warfare agents
- Detoxification of chemical warfare agents
- Inhibition of laundry process dye transfer (allowing one to mix darks and whites in one wash-load)
- Breaking down other organics in water (that don’t belong there)
- Render Thiophosphate pesticide non-toxic
- Catalysis over a wide pH range, including greater than 14
- Bleaching of dyes in textile mill effluent (for same reasons mentioned above for paper and pulp effluent)
- Degradation (breaking down) of Estrogens in water. (Estrogens and many other drugs find their way into the waters dumped by nearby pharmaceutical companies and factories)
- Catalysis of some Oxidative syntheses
The Choice is Ours
Every day brings with it more and more possibilities in the field of “Green Science”. Years ago, the thought of such a field would have seemed impossible. Environmental concerns are spreading day by day, as people who were previously indifferent wake up to the reality that there is only so much abuse the planet can take.
It is not just the scientist, scholar, geek or rebel anymore – the common person wants to know not only what is going on with the environment, but how he or she can make a difference. The time to bridge the gap between scientist and layperson has come. The work of such scientists as Terrence J. Collins and Colin Horwitz makes it possible for us to be able to do our part, even if just as Eco-wise consumers using their technologies or other methods such as phytoremediation. There are too many alternatives to have an excuse.