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The business of being green

Issue 18 | November 2006

Report: Melissa Marino
Photography: Greg Ford and Melissa Di Ciero

Happy being green: Professor Milton Hearn is director of the green chemistry centre at Monash.

A cutting-edge Special Research Centre at Monash University is leading the way for green chemistry and a cleaner Australia.

'Elegant design', 'sustainability pillars', 'triple bottom lines', 'waste reduction' -- these fashionable phrases are not immediately associated with chemistry's test tubes and white lab coats.

But the Australian Research Council Special Research Centre for Green Chemistry at Monash University is changing all that, with such concepts being synonymous with the cutting-edge work being conducted at the centre.

And as director of the centre Professor Milton Hearn explains, the green chemistry mantra -- that it is better to prevent waste at conception than to treat it or clean it up after it has been created -- is much more that just a bland, populist statement.

The purpose of the centre -- which was established in 2000 to 'research and develop chemical processes and products that have little or no environmental risk and are economically and technologically feasible' -- is underpinned by scientific rigour and is a serious business.

By designing chemical products and processes at the molecular level that reduce or eliminate by-products and hazardous waste, money can be saved, environmental problems avoided and humanity's perspective on toxic waste changed forever.

"Although these may appear like motherhood statements, when you look at the research behind them, step-by-step, you realise there's real depth," says Professor Hearn. "There's intellectual depth, economic potential and process capability that can be rigorously quantified."

One measure the centre uses to quantify the benefits of green chemistry is called an E-factor (the weight of waste versus the weight of product produced), which can be tracked throughout a manufacturing process.

"An E-factor takes into account all inputs such as the electricity and water used, not just in the process of manufacture, but also in the cleaning of the machinery and the energy consumed," Professor Hearn says. "It is quite a complex metric, but you can compare the different ways of making the same substance and their E-factors and come to really objective conclusions."

Guiding the centre's modus operandi are the 12 Anastas-Warner principles aimed at reducing the use of hazardous materials and the production of toxic waste.

At Monash, these principles are being realised by research projects ranging from the development of new anti-cancer drugs to the elimination of corrosion, the reduction of soil toxicity, solventless paints and the refinement and broadening of the scope of the green chemistry processes themselves.

Pushing the boundaries of the capabilities of green technology is the work of centre Fellows Dr Reinhard Boysen and Mr Yuanzhong (William) Yang, who are expecting to have eight or nine papers published shortly from recently completed research associated with a new high-resolution separation method.

Professor Hearn says this work allows for the analysis of biological molecules on a nano scale. Such analysis makes the process more efficient from a green chemistry perspective, by producing less waste because of its miniaturised scale while also providing more precise analysis of the sample.

"In the past, this work would have required larger cylinders -- approximately half an inch across filled with solvents -- but it is now possible to use capillaries, smaller than a strand of your hair," he says.

And while this work is an advance in green chemistry itself, other industries and fields will benefit from the range of work being undertaken at the centre, from pharmaceuticals and biotech to agriculture and mining.

The economic and environmental benefits that can result from these types of projects are prompting businesses and governments around the world to sit up and take notice.

Recently returned from Japan where he was a guest on a national committee on green chemistry, Professor Hearn was interested to hear industry delegates speak of one of their key reasons for their interest in the emerging field -- public perception.

"I was fascinated that they were thinking about what could be done for industry to enhance the public's perception that the company was a good citizen, not only in a global sense but also to shareholders," Professor Hearn says.

Perceptions are already paying off for companies that have adopted green chemistry technologies in the US, says Professor Hearn, where the annual Presidential Green Chemistry Awards are hotly contested and can see winning companies' share prices increase significantly in the weeks after their success.

Professor Hearn has been lobbying state and federal ministers to introduce something similar in Australia, but in the meantime, at Monash, the green chemistry centre is proving its own worth.

In the six years since it began, through Federal Government funding administered by the Australian Research Council, the centre has consistently outperformed its own projections.Its external earnings from industry are six times the projected amount, rising fast from just over $50,000 in 2002 to more than $3.5 million today, accounting for 45 per cent of its funding.

Several staff, including Federation Fellow Professor Alan Bond, have been honoured with awards from peak professional organisations and the community. Further, the number of patent applications from the centre is running at three times more than projected, and the number of papers published in high-impact journals by centre researchers has been averaging 45 each year.

Professor Hearn believes green chemistry is necessary for the future of industry and the environment.

"Part of the raison d'être for the centre is not to do what others are doing," he says. "What we're really trying to develop is leading-edge technologies that others want, use and then follow and adapt."