Think “chemistry” and you’re not likely to think “clean and green.” Yet there are many chemistry researchers out there looking to reduce the damaging ecological impact of industrial chemical processes.
Their work just got an added boost with the founding of a new National Centre of Excellence for the development and commercialization of green chemistry technologies, reportedly the first of its kind in North America.
PARTEQ Innovations, the technology commercialization office of Queen’s University, was recently awarded $9.1 million from the federal government to bring together leading green chemistry researchers and industry partners with the goal of developing cleaner, less energy-intensive solutions for traditional chemical and manufacturing processes. GreenCentre Canada, which is now in the process of constructing its facilities in Kingston, Ontario, and hiring commercial managers and scientists, expects to be fully operating by the end of the year.
The centre is intended to bridge the “valley of death” that has long plagued academic researchers all too used to seeing their discoveries fall into oblivion, says Philip Jessop, a Queen’s chemist and the centre’s technical director who recently received the John C. Polanyi Award for his own green discovery, a method of separating oil and water using carbon dioxide instead of solvents.
“There are great chemists across the country making amazing discoveries that could result in environmental benefits if they were industrialized,” he says. “What happens to those ideas? If they are lucky, they get patented, but a lot of them never do. Or they may get published and that’s it.”
The major hurdle in seeing these discoveries go from the lab to the real world is that academic researchers usually work on a small scale, producing perhaps a few grams of a product, while a company needs samples on a multi-kilogram scale to gain proof of effectiveness.
“That’s where the dance would end. … But now that’s exactly where we come in,” says Rui Resendes, director of commercial development in chemistry and materials at PARTEQ and executive director of GreenCentre Canada.
Under this new commercialization model, university discoveries that show both green value and market value would be licensed to GreenCentre Canada. The centre then undertakes the developmental research, adapting the invention to meet the special needs of an industry client and to achieve the required scale of application. Once industry adopts the technology or product, it pays license fees to the centre and the university that made the initial discovery.
“What we are doing is considerably reducing the risk factor for industry,” says Dr. Resendes. “At the same time, both the original university and the professor who made the discovery will get money back from their invention, unlike in the past when it would be more likely to just sit on a shelf.”
Green chemistry is defined as the study of chemical processes in industrial manufacturing to identify where harm is being done to the environment and how a process can be altered to reduce that damage.
Queen’s and McGill University are both leaders in green chemistry in Canada, with McGill focusing primarily on pure research. Chao-Jun Li, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Green Chemistry at McGill, has developed with his colleagues new processes that use water instead of toxic solvents to achieve various chemical reactions, thus dramatically reducing toxic by-products. He has also invented a new process to create polymer plastics from carbon dioxide instead of from toxic petro-chemicals.
“The founding of the centre is a great help to green chemists across the entire country,” says Dr. Li. “This is the first time the government has put a major investment in this very important field.”
Since the announcement, inventions from researchers have been “pouring into our office,” says the centre’s Dr. Resendes. This is good news for all those concerned about the environment, he says.
There is also the potential to create a significant number of high-paying jobs in green technology, says Dr. Resendes. The chemical and materials industry is currently the world’s largest manufacturing sector, accounting for three percent of global GDP. “Now, we have an opportunity to reinvent this sector in Canada, not with traditional practices but based on green manufacturing practices, green products and green services,” he says.