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Can Chemistry Be Green? Exploring the Answers at 2017 Stairs Lecture

Annual Stairs Lecture explores how chemistry can be kinder to the environment


What is “green chemistry” you may ask? Dr. Philip Jessop, Canada research chair in Green Chemistry at Queen’s University, was happy to answer the questions for a crowd of over 50 attendees at this year’s Stairs Lecture at Market Hall on November 14, 2017.

To explain the concept of “green” chemistry, Professor Jessop began by hauling out a fairly large rock and asked: “Is this heavy?”                                

He explained to the crowd that he brings this rock to his first lecture of the year and asks a student the same question, which inevitably makes the student uncomfortable. Why? Because it is impossible to answer. If he’d asked, “How much does this weigh,” the student could estimate. If he said he planned to use this rock for his wife’s wedding ring, the student could say that it was too heavy for that. But to ask, “Is this heavy?” is asking the impossible.

“The ability to compare is essential,” said Prof. Jessop, “And that is key to defining what is green.”

Prof. Jessop went on to explain the importance of life-cycle analyses in his work and provided interesting examples, like the universal question when it comes to bags: paper or plastic. He asked: who thought paper bags were less harmful to the environment, and who thought plastic. Of course, many people raised their hands to paper. Turns out that paper bags create five times as much solid waste as plastic bags do, and if plastic bags are used more than the average of 14 times each before they’re disposed of, they’re much more environmentally-friendly when the full life cycle is considered.

Overall, it is better to prevent waste than to clean it up. This is another key tenet to the concept of “green chemistry.”

Prof. Jessop said he was inspired to start teaching students green chemistry when he realized that universities do not actually require students to learn how to create non-toxic molecules. He said more and more high school students are arriving as undergraduates with a deep concern for the environment and an eagerness to learn green chemistry.

At the lecture, the award-winning professor asked: If the government could fix one thing, would you pick the environment or the economy? Everyone raised hands for the environment. But it’s a “false choice,” he said. The greener choice is the cheaper choice. The greener choice saves companies money. “In the olden days, pollution meant prosperity, pollution meant jobs. But things have changed and now it’s, ‘How can we fight pollution?’ There is simply no need to choose the between the economy or the environment anymore.”

“I very much enjoyed Dr. Jessop's lecture, it was inspiring to learn the impact of environmentally conscientious scientific research on the industry,” explained Kelly Wright, a graduate student in the Materials Science program.  “Dr. Jessop has demonstrated the importance and obligation of keeping green chemistry in mind during my future research endeavors.”

Posted on Monday, November 27, 2017.

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