Alan Rosan’s Chem 5 students learned why choosing earth-friendly products is no easy thing.
By Bill Haduch
When Haley Flagg, a junior environmental science major, needed a research project for her Chem 5 course, a conversation at home about a medical problem came to mind. Flagg’s mother, an oncology nurse in Connecticut, had described severe and surprising side effects in some patients when they received saline intravenously from a new type of pre-filled polymer container—one thought to be more environmentally friendly than the traditional PVC bags, and less likely to leach harmful chemicals into the saline.
The polymer containers produced vomiting and a harsh saline taste—a downside for the green movement—but it made a textbook case for one of Professor Alan Rosan’s lessons of green chemistry: that selecting products for their friendliness to the environment isn’t simple and is often a matter of weighing competing interests. “What do you choose?” asks Flagg. “The environmentally friendly plastic and somehow deal with the side effects? Or do you forgo the E factor and not endure more suffering?”
Offered for the first time last fall, Chem 5, aka “An Introduction to Green Materials, Processes and Alternatives,” is no ordinary chemistry course. “With today’s concerns about sustainability, chemistry must deal with much more than synthesis of materials,” Rosan says. “We need to consider energy use, health concerns, waste production and much more.”
If green chemistry sounds like a headache, Rosan uses the example of a popular painkiller to show its absolute necessity. “About 30 million pounds of ibuprofen are produced every year, and it used to be that 35 million pounds of waste was also produced,” he says. “So the real product was not the drug, it was the waste.” Chemists have now found a way to productively use up twice the atoms during manufacture, greatly reducing waste, he explains. “Thanks to green chemistry, there’s a new approach.”
Rosan designed Chem 5 in line with Drew’s mission of fostering environmental awareness, and the new general education requirements in the College of Liberal Arts that aim to challenge students to take intellectual risks, develop curiosity and creativity, and ask and explore difficult and complex questions. For Flagg and her classmates, it’s paying off.
“This is the future of chemistry,” says Rosan. “It’s the way chemistry will be thought of and practiced.”