Environmentally Friendly (i.e., “Green”) Synthetic Chemistry

Public Health Burden
Discovery, development, and manufacture of therapeutic and diagnostic agents, as well as of many other chemical products, require use of synthetic chemistry to convert simpler, commercially available chemicals into the more chemically complex products. These synthetic processes require several sequential steps, each a chemical reaction. Each of these steps typically uses organic or inorganic reagents and chemical solvents that are expensive to purchase, use, and dispose of in occupationally and environmentally safe ways. Many of these are harmful to both human and environmental health, so the chemical industry often produces environmentally hazardous waste streams in its processes. An important goal is the discovery of new methodologies to achieve syntheses of new agents in environmentally friendly and economical processes.

This ARRA-supported project has made important advances toward this goal, producing basic research that has increased our scientific capabilities.

The investigator in this report, Bruce Lipshutz, Ph.D., at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has discovered a versatile method for carrying out synthetic reactions using water as the reaction medium in place of the toxic and/or flammable chemical solvents traditionally used. The reactions proceed in a nano particle environment surrounded by water. In this process, several widely used reaction types that were previously incompatible with water and required high temperatures can now be carried out in water at room temperature. The resulting processes produce less pollution, use less energy, and are more economical.

Dr. Lipshutz has been extending these methods into a wide range of synthetic organic chemical reactions that were used in various branches of the chemical industry. His ARRA grant has supported publication of some 30 papers detailing these uses. He notes that the green chemistry has not yet made big inroads into commercial production processes, but he is working with the chemical industry. His research is providing the industry with the proof of principle. Notably, water is much cheaper than the organic solvents traditionally used, and the reactions can proceed at room temperature instead of at high temperatures. Thus, Dr. Lipshutz is focused on showing the economies the chemical industry can enjoy by using this new technology. Green chemistry can potentially have a huge impact on the industry’s “bottom line”, creating a powerful incentive to switch over to the green approach. Dr. Lipshutz also reports development of green experiments for use in undergraduate organic chemistry laboratory courses, which, in the aggregate, also generate a large volume of toxic waste.

Importance to Human Health
Much of the waste produced by the organic chemistry industry is toxic and even carcinogenic. This industry includes manufacturers of many of the products industrial societies use daily, ranging from paint to plastics to pharmaceuticals. The amount of often toxic organic waste released by the industry is estimated to be in the billions of pounds annually. This waste must be disposed of in some way—buried, burned, recycled—but is too often just dumped into the environment, where it poses health risks to humans and other organisms. The elimination of these toxic wastes, without the loss of the valuable organic products needed in our advanced technological society, could eliminate many health hazards currently present in our air and water.

Quotes from the Principal Investigator
“Without this funding, our program on green chemistry would have died, and the technology we ultimately developed would not have come to fruition. The ARRA funding allowed us to develop a new, enabling technology, with the potential to significantly reduce the amount of organic solvents used that have become the main source of organic waste produced by the chemical enterprise worldwide. This investment by the NIH has led to technology recognized by the EPA, in the form of a Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award for 2011, as potentially transformative, where huge amounts of organic solvents can potentially be replaced by water in many of the reactions used every day by the fine chemicals industry. This alternative approach involving only water as the reaction medium, and which obviates any investment of energy beyond that provided at room temperature, is currently being evaluated by the pharmaceutical industry. Our aim is to provide an environmentally attractive alternative medium for doing synthetic organic chemistry.”—Bruce Lipshutz, Ph.D.

“Once companies develop greener technologies, they don’t return. There's no going back. By converting to a green process, it is the gift that keeps on giving, as the benefits to the environment and the economic savings continue year-after-year. This is very serious business, with major implications for sustainability. It only takes one company to document that this technology works, especially on scale, to imply that many others could apply it as well. This is part of the future of doing chemistry, which is how Nature does chemistry: in water. It is cost effective, and it is benign by design in the Anastas and Warner sense.”—Bruce Lipshutz, Ph.D.

“The EPA has independently determined that this technology is important, as evidenced by a Presidential Green Chemistry Award in 2011, a direct outgrowth of this funding. Companies are more than ever looking toward processes that are friendly to the environment. However, they must also be friendly to their bottom line. Through this technology, they can expect savings on organic solvents, energy, etc., but transforming the chemical enterprise to embrace this technology will take time. First industry must go through the exercise of determining its value for their specific needs. This phase is now ongoing as we continue to show, through NIH-funded studies, its generality. The research funding provided by the Recovery Act has accelerated this process immensely.”—Bruce Lipshutz, Ph.D.

Contributing NIH Institutes & Centers

  • National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS)

  1. Lipshutz, Bruce/University of California, Santa Barbara (1R01 GM086485-01A1, 5R01 GM086485-02, New Technologies for Catalysis in Water)