Public Health and Chemistry join forces to reimagine chemistry education for sustainability

October 4, 2019

Team Building

image: Greener Solutions students participate in a team-building exercise as co-instructors Meg Schwarzman and Tom McKeag look on. Photo courtesy Mallory Pickett.

How can the makers of Goretex produce waterproof gear without toxic perfluorinated chemicals? How might an enzyme found in plants and fungi help Levi Strauss & Co. keep their brand of khakis wrinkle-free? Is it possible to make an effective sunscreen that doesn’t damage coral reefs? A novel collaboration between the School of Public Health and the College of Chemistry through the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry (BCGC) is leading the nation in reimagining chemistry education to reduce waste, develop safer chemicals, and achieve sustainability. In a recent article in the American Chemical Society (ACS) Journal of Chemical Education, course developer Dr. Megan Schwarzman and course alum, Dr. Heather Buckley detail how Berkeley's one-of-a-kind Greener Solutions course (PBHLTH 271H) brings together graduate students in chemistry, environmental health, and engineering to develop safer alternatives to hazardous chemicals and manufacturing processes.

"Berkeley is just the right intellectual environment to join these disciplines in reimagining chemistry education," says Dr. Megan Schwarzman, Associate Director of BCGC, who co-founded the course 8 years ago with then Chemistry postdoctoral fellow Dr. Martin Mulvihill. As BCGC Executive Director and course co-instructor, Tom McKeag puts it, "the profession of chemistry is undergoing a generational transformation toward the design and use of inherently safer chemicals and materials. Berkeley is on the forefront of redesigning chemistry education to prepare future leaders for creative problem solving."

Greener Solutions site visit

image: Greener Solutions students visit partner organization W.L. Gore with co-instructor Dr. Billy Hart-Cooper and Gore toxicologist Dr. Barb Henry. Photo courtesy Tom McKeag.

Dr. Schwarzman, a physician scientist on the faculty of Environmental Health Sciences in the Berkeley School of Public Health, has spearheaded the process through her research, teaching and involvement in California’s groundbreaking chemical policies. "The principles of green chemistry are rapidly making their way into science, industry practice, and public policy, and California needs scientists and experts who can provide leadership in safeguarding human health and ecosystems, while providing a cornerstone for a sustainable, clean energy economy in the state," she said, adding "businesses are eager to collaborate with Berkeley students and faculty to further these goals."

A case in point is when Levi Strauss & Co. sought help maintaining a sharp crease in their brand of wrinkle-free khakis without using the crosslinker formaldehyde—a carcinogen that is hazardous to workers in the manufacturing process. Berkeley students took to the challenge, identifying as a potential substitute a fungal enzyme that could crosslink cellulose.

Now in its eighth year, the Greener Solutions course builds interdisciplinary teams of 3-5 graduate students from Environmental Health Sciences, Chemistry, Engineering and elsewhere across the Berkeley campus to tackle a challenge posed by a company seeking a safer way of making its products. Partner companies are generally at the leading edge of sustainability — often looking for a safer material or manufacturing process in advance of regulation.

"The Berkeley course directs the efforts of these talented young researchers toward real sustainability challenges posed by companies making everything from electronics to personal care products, building materials, furnishings, polymers and textiles" said Dr. Heather Buckley, who took the course as a doctoral student, received her PhD in Chemistry from Berkeley in 2014 and is now Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering at University of Victoria where she teaches her own version of Greener Solutions. "It’s inspirational to watch stellar students tackling these challenges. Their technical training really is positioning them to change the world,” she added.

Greener Solutions student teams start by identifying the core function served by a hazardous chemical and then turn to biology to look for safer substitutes. One team working with W.L. Gore—the makers of Goretex—found that the surface texture of the silver ragwort leaf sheds water exceptionally well, and they suggested an electrospun fiber surface to replace the toxic perfluorinated chemical treatments typically used on outerwear. Another team looking for alternatives to the toxic isocyanates in spray polyurethane foam insulation identified chemicals that mimic the adhesive process that secures mussels to rocks in intertidal zones.

Authors of ACS journal article highlight the goal of the course, which teaches students how to frame and solve problems using systems-thinking. This requires students to consider possible health and environmental impacts that could arise over the full lifecycle of a material or product, from sourcing, through manufacture, use and disposal or re-use. As the authors state, doing so requires deep interdisciplinary collaboration where students “learn new subject matter form each other, experience themselves as experts in their own field, and witness each other as experts in fields unfamiliar to them.”

This training equips students to tackle complex challenges in their future academic and professional work. "The course helped prepare me for a career outside the ivory tower, and it was exciting that our class projects had a real-world impact on industry," says Dr. Justin Bours, who graduated in 2016 with a PhD in chemistry and now works for the global non-profit, Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.

One class project led to a partnership between USDA labs and the household cleaner company Method, ultimately contributing to product reformulations estimated to eliminate 1,000,000 pounds of hazardous surfactants from the environment annually. Another project that started in the class went on to produce a novel reversible antimicrobial compound that dissociates in wastewater into benign, biodegradable subunits. It recently won first place in the 2018 Green Chemistry and Commerce Council Global Preservatives Challenge.

This fall, Greener Solutions students are working with Nike on safer alternatives to a solvent commonly used in manufacturing synthetic leather and with a group of NGOs, academic labs and industry partners to identify safer components for 3D printing resins. Course instructors and students are always looking for the next challenge. And who knows, students might just find the right use for that fungal enzyme yet. 

This story is a joint release with the School of Public Health.

green chemistry

Coming next year

Green Chemistry in Practice

Greener Material and Chemical Innovation Through Collaboration

by Tom McKeag

Green Chemistry in Practice: Greener Material and Chemical Innovation Through Collaboration collects together a unique set of case studies based on researchers’ experiences in developing practical, green chemistry-driven solutions to industry problems as part of the Greener Solutions Program at Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry.

Learn more>