______________________________Arrow-Pushing in Organic Chemistry: An Easy Approach to Understanding Reaction Mechanisms, 2nd Edition (111899132X) cover image

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Green Technology and "Climategate" - Opportunities in Environmentally Friendly Chemistry

Recent news suggesting the use of manipulated and/or manufactured data supporting the global warming phenomenon has simultaneously created a political nightmare for advocates and perceived vindication for skeptics.  Regardless of the politics behind climate change, one thing is absolutely clear - ALL TRUE FACTS CAN BE BACKED UP WITH DATA.  This axiom applies as much to scientific disciplines as it does to the media.  If data is manipulated in order to support a hypothesis, the validity of that hypothesis becomes questionable.  Furthermore, if a journalist presents data out of context, the credibility of that journalist becomes questionable.  Finally, if a scientist manipulates data to support a hypothesis, the credibility of that scientist becomes questionable.  As a scientist, I can tell you that there is nothing more important to me than my credibility.

In disciplines where ongoing activities and policies rely on developing data, the introduction of manufactured data or the convenient omission of recorded data serves no one except those with vested interests in validating their theories.  Whether an advocate or a skeptic of global warming, there is one philosophy that we can all agree upon - it is a good idea to take care of our environment.  This philosophy, applied to both established and developing industries, automatically gives rise to tremendous opportunities in the sciences.  For example:
  • the finite supply of accessible natural resources gives rise to the development of alternative fuels and more efficient means of utilizing currently accessible fuels, 
  • the current reliance upon combustion of fossil fuels gives rise to the development of emission containment technology, and
  • the constant accumulation of waste materials gives rise to the development of technologies for the recycling and/or reprocessing of discarded products.
While the current "climategate" scandal may impinge upon idealistic views of science and politics, it should not be a barrier to innovation.  Each of the points mentioned above have direct implications to the carbon cycle and, through the creative minds of our current and emerging scientific talent, economically viable technologies will emerge.  Already, academic institutions are designing curricula focused on "green chemistry" or chemistry incorporating solvents, reagents and reaction conditions that are compatible with the health of the environment.

Organic Chemistry and Clean Technology

Since the industrial revolution, our economy has become increasingly more dependent upon the combustion of fossil fuels.  After all, the energy provided by oil, coal and natural gas is already contained within the natural materials mined for human use.  All we have to do is recover the fuel.  Furthermore, these natural resources also provide components useful as, for example,
  • raw materials for the manufacture of chemicals,
  • monomeric units for polymer synthesis, and
  • paving materials for roads.
While organic chemistry is the core science in the processing of petroleum-based materials, organic chemistry also provides solutions to dealing with the abundance of petroleum-based materials being discarded on a daily basis.  Just as an understanding of the chemical composition and properties of oil, coal and natural gas led to advances in efficiency of recovery and refinement, similar understandings of polymer chemistry led to creative ways to reuse discarded polymeric materials and reclaim useful decomposition products.

Expanding on the above, the study of organic chemistry opens doors to careers in the development of environmentally friendly technologies including:
  • biodiesel,
  • synthetic/semi-synthetic fuels,
  • motor oil from polymer waste,
  • catalysts for more efficient fuel combustion, and
  • biodegradable polymers.
Finally, it is comforting to know that the development of these technologies will continue - even if climate change is identified as a purely natural and cyclic process.

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