How green chemistry encourages beautiful, elegant science | Interview with Dr. Paul Anastas

We met with Director of Yale University’s Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, Dr. Paul Anastas, to talk about thinking holistically about technological innovation, elegance and beauty as elements within scientific development, green chemistry, and so much more. Enjoy!

How green chemistry encourages beautiful, elegant science | Interview with Dr. Paul Anastas
"Green Chemistry has often been called the Chemistry of Sustainability and understanding how the new materials that we introduce into the universe, that the world has never seen before, will have consequence for the living things, for the biosphere."” – Dr. Paul Anastas

Notable chemist Dr. Paul T. Anastas explains “green chemistry” and how its performance outcomes are designed to complement living systems. He considers elegance and beauty as elements within scientific development and how to think holistically about technological innovation, Director of Yale University’s Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, Dr. Anastas talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

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Interview with Chemist Dr. Paul T. Anastas

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:17

Jed Macosko: Hi, I’m Dr. Jed Macosko at AcademicInfluence.com and Wake Forest University. And today, we have a wonderful guest visiting us from Yale University, Professor Paul Anastas, and he is directing a lot of green chemistry and has been doing that his whole career. So, I just wanna ask you…

As we enter into this new presidential administration, what do you think are the biggest challenges that relate to how we produce the molecules that we produce, be it CO2, be it air pollution, water pollution, etcetera, and where do you think the biggest problems lie?

Paul Anastas: First of all, I have to say thank you for having me. It’s gonna be great to chat with you, Jed. Thank you very much.

And you ask a great question, because it would be easy to try to focus on any individual class of chemicals or where those chemicals go and the harm they cause. But that’s not where I focus, it’s not where green chemistry focuses.

"…when we look at how chemicals are pervasive in all aspects of our life, what we wanna recognize is that chemistry has no problem with invention and creativity and brilliance of the new molecules and new materials."” – Dr. Paul Anastas

Green chemistry isn’t focused on just measuring, monitoring and quantifying the problems. It really is focused on generating and creating the solutions.

So, when we look at how chemicals are pervasive in all aspects of our life, what we wanna recognize is that chemistry has no problem with invention and creativity and brilliance of the new molecules and new materials.

What we need to do is add a new perspective, and this new perspective that’s been evolving in recent years, is that perspective of green chemistry and how you do systems thinking, so you’ll understand not only how to get exceptional performance, whether it’s in a pharmaceutical or a new battery system or whatever it is, but how you also make sure that those new materials and those new molecules are conducive to life, support human health of the environment. So that’s the new perspective of green chemistry.

Jed: Okay, I get it.

So it’s not so much identify where the biggest problem is and try to go into that area to help those people deal with their mess, but it’s just sort of how can you make it so that everybody who produces chemicals all have the same mindset of, “How can we do this to optimize two things, performance, and what happens to all the molecules so that we can stay alive in this world?” It’s just getting the word out to everybody, right?

Paul: Well, I love the way you summarize that. I’d put it slightly differently, where we’re just basically redefining performance, so performance is not, you have a good thing that does a lot of harm. Performance is that you’re getting the function that you want and still making sure that it’s good for the people in the planet.

03:24Big challenges and Green Chemistry

Jed: I see, okay, yeah, that’s a better way to say it. Then you only have to focus on one thing, performance, but define properly, that makes a lot of sense.

And yet still, you probably have a good perspective on what the challenges are. I mean, you know, for example, which industries have adopted a green chemistry mindset and which ones don’t have it adopted yet, so obviously, those ones would be bigger problems, you know which industries had more of an impact on human health. For example, the toxins that cause cancer, I know you care a lot about that.

You mentioned global warming and things like that, so where do you see the big challenges?

"…I see opportunities everywhere. But the reason for that is that we've done things so wrong, for so long, we've got nothing but opportunities…"” – Dr. Paul Anastas

Paul: You know, the wonderful thing is, I see opportunities everywhere. But the reason for that is that we’ve done things so wrong, for so long, we’ve got nothing but opportunities, right? When you look at how we generate our energy still, still in 2020, we’re looking at burning rocks and goo to a first approximation for how we generate our energy.

That is probably not the most elegant way to achieve our energy needs. What we’re talking about when we look at green chemistry is not just the ugliness of climate change and the toxicity associated with petroleum.

What we’re talking about is elegance, really defining elegance and beauty as ways of getting far more energy, without all of the damage and decay and degradation.

So, as you pursue new energy systems, that is just going to be far more elegant chemistry, and you could say the same with how we…Oh, let’s go with how we purify our water. And so, if you look at the embedded energy in a water purification and delivery system of our drinking water, the energy costs are far more than what anyone ever charges for water, and you end up having disinfection byproducts, which are often toxic and some carcinogenic.

This whole program, is that the Environmental Protection Agency on disinfection byproducts. So, everybody knows that disinfecting water is essential. Saves millions of lives. But how we go about it, is what’s key.

So we’ve been doing the right things, but we’ve been doing them wrong for a long time. So doing the right things right, getting all of that positive function without all of the unintended consequence is what green chemistry is all about.

Jed: Yes, and so if you were in control of the whole world, at least as it pertains to a healthful life, with what we wanna do, you really would just try to get everything up to speed, not one particular area, but just get everything up to speed, water purification, energy generation, everything. Just try to let the rising tide of green chemistry thinking float all the boats higher.

Is that what you’re saying?

Paul: In many ways it is, but I come back to, as usual, Einstein always says it best, right? And what he said was, “Problems can’t be solved at the same level of awareness that create it.” And so if we look at that, what does that mean?

In this situation, it means that for better than 200 years, we’ve been taking a reductionist approach to our science, generally, speaking. And reductionism has been amazingly powerful, it has allowed us to understand the world and the universe in ways that we never could imagine and understand it deeply, and it has revolutionized not only our understanding but the way that we live every day.

"…the world doesn't work in a reductionist way, the world is interconnected and it's an infinite number of systems nested in systems."” – Dr. Paul Anastas

But the world doesn’t work in a reductionist way, the world is interconnected and it’s an infinite number of systems nested in systems. So if we look at a wonderful quote from…Who’s it? I guess it was Philip Anderson, that just passed away, he wrote a paper in 1970 in Science where we talked about reductionism, and he said, “The reductionist model in no way implies a constructionist one,” that by understanding all of the pieces you can rebuild the universe.

So what we have to understand is that as we design, as we put the pieces together, it is not going to be merely the sum of our reductionist understanding but we’re going to have to understand how those things interlink. And so, taking systems thinking into our design will be absolutely critical.

And that’s what sustainability is all about. So Green Chemistry has often been called the Chemistry of sustainability, and understanding how the new materials that we introduce into the universe that the world has never seen before will have consequence for the living things, for the biosphere. Understanding those things is crucial, and I’ve often said, “The most powerful word in the dictionary is the word ‘and’.”

09:11Gettin past the rhetoric

Jed: Putting things together, boy, that’s very impressive. Yeah, you have that way of thinking about things, and is this a way perhaps to get beyond the sort of, “We believe in global warming. We don’t believe in global warming. We’re gonna fight it out,” just to say, “Okay, hold on. Why don’t we just all focus in on improving the systems thinking about everything we do?”

Do you think that has much promise of getting past a lot of the rhetoric?

Paul: Oh, I think it has a tremendous promise, so I worked at the EPA and I never had a single argument with my colleagues in the industry or in business, because this was not about telling them what they can’t do and how much they had to spend on a regulation or on a fine or anything like this, this was about understanding what you can do, what you can invent, what you can innovate.

And people ask me, “How did you come up with this term, green chemistry?” And I said, “Lots of people understand that green conjures up images of the environment, but in the US, green is also the color of our money. This is about how you align things so that as you make environmental advances, you also make economic advances and aligning those two things means that you don’t have to go back to that old win-lose scenario, that it can be a genuine win-win.”

Jed: Yeah, and maybe as we close out this interview…

can you talk about some of your biggest wins, biggest win-wins that you’ve been able to witness and help facilitate?

Paul: Well, the biggest win-win without question was the spread of green chemistry globally. So I’m so honored to be here with you. The truth of the matter is that I’m only representing a global community of people who are doing this work day in and day out, inventing tomorrow. So that is by far the biggest win.

Back in 1995, long time ago, I was lucky to work with President Bill Clinton in launching the presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards, recognizing accomplishments in business and in academia in green chemistry. That program was not just about getting credit where it was due, it was all about showing the model and pointing a direction of what was possible and capturing people’s imagination about what was possible.

"The compass is more important than the speedometer."” – Dr. Paul Anastas

That vision and that directionality really illustrates something that I always say, which is the, “The compass is more important than the speedometer.” We really like our quantifiable metrics, but the truth of the matter is, if we’re going very fast in the wrong direction that’s not a good thing.

And so being able to understand our true north when we’re making new molecules, when we’re seeing new chemical transformations and understanding not just the efficiency, but the character and the nature of the materials that make up our world.

12:32Example of Green Chemistry

Jed: That’s great.

And is there a specific example that we who are not familiar with green chemistry can think about and say, “Oh yeah, I can see how that was really helpful to making things more efficient, but also making them more green and helping sustain life.” So can you think of one that’s a good example of that?

Paul: Well, I have an example. We developed some technology that was used for splitting water, and splitting water effectively is important for a lot of reasons, including energy storage to enable renewable energy.

But when you split it into hydrogen and oxygen, that could be very useful. When you combine that with CO2, it also allows you to be a platform chemical, where instead of thinking of CO2 as a waste, you can now think of it as a building block for many materials.

Now, that’s hard for people to get their head around. So one thing that I’m happy to be a part of was we launched a company and the building block chemical that we use was ethanol, so now we have a “distillery” in Brooklyn, New York, called the Air Company, which makes some of the most delicious luxury vodka, made out of CO2 and is carbon negative. It’s the first carbon negative vodka.

So now one could say, and one should say, “But, hold it, all the vodka in the world isn’t gonna scratch the surface on the climate change issue.” What’s important and the whole reason for this company is not just that it’s delicious vodka, it’s that you wanna capture people’s imagination, that if you can turn CO2 into something that luxurious, then certainly you can use it as a building block for things like concrete and road surfaces and bridges and building materials and re-carbonation of our soils, etcetera, etcetera, on this scale that actually can change the needle from it being a waste to a valuable product.

So that’s one that comes to mind, but we’re lucky enough that we’ve been involved in launching a lot of technologies and spinning them out and making them happen.

15:02Sign off

Jed: And thank you for sharing one of them because that was fascinating. And just thank you so much for giving us your perspective on how a way of thinking could be really a hope for us, both politically to come together, but also economically to improve the quality of life and most importantly, environmentally, so that we can really protect our planet. So thank you so much, Paul, for joining us today. It was just truly a pleasure.

Paul: The pleasure was all mine. Thanks so much.