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First Washington green chemistry conference aims to plan for toxics

PULLMAN, Wash. - A more holistic, less piecemeal roadmap for the use of chemicals in the state is the goal of research, industry and government leaders who will gather this week in the state's first green chemistry conference.

"We are very good at our chemistry, but we are not always good at understanding the effects of our chemistry,'' said Dave Sjoding, renewable energy specialist for the WSU Extension Energy Program.

The conference, May 25-26 at the Boeing Longacres facility in Renton, is sponsored by the Washington State Green Chemistry Roundtable, a partnership of Washington State University, the Department of Ecology, Department of Commerce, Boeing, the Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center and the Bullitt Foundation.

Environmental, economical balance

The idea of green chemistry came about in the early 1990s with the aim of developing chemicals that are less toxic for people and the environment, yet also are economical. Some of the principles of green chemistry include: using catalysts to increase yields of the most desired product while using minimal energy; preventing development of harmful byproducts; designing safer chemicals and solvents; designing for energy efficiency; and using feedstocks from renewable resources whenever possible.

"There is growing recognition that you can do things in ways that have a small environmental impact and that advance the economy simultaneously. Doing so, however, takes careful thought,'' said Jim Petersen, director of WSU's Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering.

In Washington, 66 chemicals are considered toxic and are carefully and extensively regulated, Sjoding said.

Improving education, research

Removing nasty chemicals from the environment generally has been done on a piecemeal basis. From taking lead out of gasoline to cleaning up mercury to creating regulations for a fire-protective chemical in children's pajamas, the trajectory has been similar: Chemists come up with new chemicals that help society only to later discover health or environmental effects. Scientists do some studies. People get upset and worried, and then regulators argue for awhile before making new regulations.

"We have to address these issues more than one at a time,'' said Sjoding. "We need to re-think how we do chemistry.''

At the conference, researchers will discuss ways to improve education and where research efforts should be focused.

Petersen aims to have chemical engineering students taught to think proactively about green chemistry and engineering principles. Many courses implicitly cover green chemistry concepts, but the researchers would like to encourage a more careful thought process.

"If you do 'green chemistry' right, it's less expensive and creates jobs, while reducing environmental impacts - all of which are good,'' Petersen said.

Helping industry

The conference also will include discussions about how some industries are developing safer products and materials and how to provide incentives. A number of companies have started initiatives in green chemistry on their own, but the efforts have been isolated, said Sjoding.

"This is the first time that a group of people interested in green chemistry have sat down together in Washington,'' he said.

By the end of June, the group will develop a draft plan for green chemistry in the state, which can eventually be used by industry, government and education leaders in their decision-making.

"This is a very important first step,'' he said.


Contact: Tina Hilding
Washington State University

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