In 2008, ICIS named Yale’s Professor Paul Anastas one of its Top 40 Power Players in the Chemical Industry for his contributions to the field of “green chemistry.” The ICIS title was not the last and hardly the first award Anastas was honored with; today, his Yale Chemistry Department homepage lists a staggering 16+ honors—and those have only updated until 2008.
Perhaps the most revealing name Anastas has, however, is an informal one coined by the scientific community: “Father of Green Chemistry.” On May 28, 2009, President Obama nominated Anastas to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Office of Research and Development; in January 2010, the U.S. Senate confirmed Anastas’ appointment as the new Assistant Administrator for Research and Development for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Anastas’ career at Yale began in 2007 as an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry. At its founding, the Anastas group was small—composed of just three post-docs and Anastas himself. One of those post-docs was Dr. Evan Beach. Presently the Program Manager for the Center of Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale, Beach was originally inspired to join the Anastas group after listening to several of Anastas’s talks on green chemistry.
“Everything was totally empty,” Beach says of those first days. “Literally—we had to start from scratch and buy all the glassware.” The lab’s initial focus was streamlining synthesis processes first for natural products like eralnapthalene lactones and dietary supplements and then moving on to biofuels and serfactins. “Existing syntheses are pretty messy. For some processes, you might be generating up to twenty pounds of waste for one pound of product.” Aside from new methodologies of chemical synthesis, Anastas was also interested in designing chemicals and bio-based polymers that were less harmful to the environment by design.
Being the “public face” of green chemistry involves more than just speaking. Anastas has also published ten books, including Benign by Design, Designing Safer Polymers, and Green Engineering. He also co-authored what Beach referred to as the “handbook for green chemists,” Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice.
Beach explains that the most difficult part is tying together all of the principles of green chemistry. When asked about Anastas’ position on this, however, he says, “[Anastas is] extremely positive and optimistic. He’s always glad to talk to people, [and when he’s there] you’re 100% sure that things are going to move forward.” Beach adds with a little smile, “He inspires a lot of confidence.”
Joining Research and Policy
Even before his recent appointment to the EPA, Anastas had a long history with environmental policy and the EPA in particular. Following the completion of his Ph.D. at Brandeis University, Anastas joined the EPA as a staff chemist, where in 1989 he was promoted to chief of the Industry Chemistry branch of the Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances.
It was during those early years at the EPA that Anastas coined the term “green chemistry.” Anastas operates under the belief that wastes released into the environment are as much of a hazard for manufacturers as consumers. He thus seeks to redesign benign chemical processes and products at the molecular level, thereby eliminating potential wastes before they are ever produced. Such changes can bring about increased efficiency in industrial processes as well as a safer environment, increased worker safety, and reduced costs associated with waste handling, disposal litigation, and regulatory control.
This unique approach to policy, in which the government not only enforces regulations and fines firms for noncompliance but also funds research to help firms help themselves, could be one of the reasons Anastas quickly became known as a sort of “ambassador for the green sciences.” Hoping to spread his vision to others, in 1996, Anastas convinced the EPA to sponsor the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards, the only presidential-level award in the chemical sciences. By allowing the government to offer incentives as well as censure, the Awards’ prestige has led hundreds of companies, including Dow Agrosciences, Bayer Corporation and Pfizer, Inc., to embrace the Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry. Pfizer, for example, now uses green chemical syntheses to manufacture two of its leading products, Zoloft and Viagra. NatureWorks PLA, on the other hand, created the first plastic made entirely from annually renewable resources like corn. Since 1996, the Challenge Awards have recognized technologies that have eliminated millions of pounds of hazardous chemicals and solvents, saved millions of gallons of water, and eliminated millions of pounds of carbon dioxide.
Beyond influencing industrial practices, Anastas has also made a great impact on academic research. “There is great work going on at some universities, but we are not even close to having enough funding. We have all of these demonstrated successes, but green chemistry has reached only a tiny percentage of its power and its potential,” said Anastas in a 2006 interview with Brandeis University’s Catalyst. To help fund green chemistry research, Anastas set up an ongoing research and development collaboration between the EPA and the National Science Foundation. The resultant Technology for Sustainable Environment Program continues to fund tens of millions of dollars to researchers.
In 1997, Anastas also catalyzed the founding of the Green Chemistry Institute (GCI), an organization that later merged with the American Chemical Society (ACS) to foster collaborations between industry, academia, and government. The ACS, whose environmental focus had always focused on cleanup, began to concentrate on prevention. The institute now has 25 international chapters, a globalizing effect in which Anastas has been very instrumental.
Anastas is currently on temporary leave from Yale, but Beach and other professors at the Yale Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering continue to advance his research. There is much to be discovered and accomplished in the field.
After all, as Anastas himself said in a July 2006 interview with the American Chemical Society, “We must answer some key questions in the future. What is the molecular basis of hazard—toxicological, physical and global? Can we use weak forces as a design tool in imparting performance as we have done with covalent forces? What is the pathway toward designing catalysts from first theoretical principles? Can we use energy in the place of matter to effectively carry out transformations catalytically on a commercial scale? Are the reaction types and feedstocks we use currently in chemical manufacturing the one’s we should be using in the next ten, twenty years? If we are to meet the challenges of sustainability, it will require that we address the problem at the molecular level as one part of the solution.”
“He’s coming back,” Beach affirms. “Green chemistry is his baby.”
- Anastas, P. T.; Warner, J. C.; Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, Oxford University Press: New York, 1998, p.30. By permission of Oxford University Press.
- J.B. Manley, P.T. Anastas, & B.W. Cue. Frontiers in Green Chemistry: meeting the grand challenges for sustainability in R&D and manufacturing. Journal of Cleaner Production 2008, 16, 743-750.
- P.T. Anastas & E.S. Beach. Green Chemistry: The Emergence of a Transformative Framework. Green Chemistry Letters and Reviews 2007, 1, 9-24.
- I. Horvath & P.T. Anastas. Innovations and Green Chemistry. Chem. Rev. 2007, 107, 2169 -2173.
About the Author
Linda Wang is a freshman in Calhoun College. She is debating between majoring in Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry and Environmental Engineering. No thanks to writing this article, she is leaning a bit towards something “green.”
The author would like to thank Dr. Evan Beach for his amazing talk about Dr. Anastas, plus his own infectious belief in and passion for sustainable science!