“Chemistry is essential to everything in our lives,” says professor Wei Zhang, “but chemistry’s image isn’t necessarily good.”
As director of the Center for Green Chemistry at UMass Boston, Zhang is on the front lines of a movement to train more environmentally conscious chemists. In early December, he’ll meet with other green chemistry center leaders in New Delhi, India, for an international workshop called “Green Initiatives in Energy, Environment, and Health.”
The conference is the first meaningful worldwide gathering of green chemists, and an opportunity for Zhang to collaborate with his colleagues from other universities. UMass Boston stands out among these institutions because it was the first to offer a PhD in green chemistry. Paul Anastas and John Warner, the authors of “The Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry,” both received bachelor’s degrees from UMass Boston. Their 12 principles outline ways that chemists can use their skills to make chemical processes and products less hazardous to the environment.
Zhang traces the origins of green chemistry to Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book about the impact of pesticides on the environment. As the environmental movement picked up steam, the public became skeptical of chemistry’s role in damaging natural ecosystems and negatively affecting human health. Zhang hopes that a new generation of chemists will change all that.
The Center for Green Chemistry is not only a hub for research, but it also works to educate chemists on how to consider the environmental, health, and energy consequences of their work. According to Zhang, green chemists are in high demand in a variety of industries. Cosmetics companies and carmakers alike are incorporating the principles of green chemistry to lessen their environmental impact of their products, and reduce their spending on fossil fuels.
“The next step,” Zhang said, “is to look at how we can scale up these green chemical processes to make them work for industry.” Researchers can develop a safer way to produce one pill in a laboratory, but the greater challenge is finding a way to safely produce millions of pills in a factory.
Zhang says he looks forward to sharing new ideas with his colleagues from Korea, Brazil, and elsewhere when he travels to New Delhi next month.