March 2015 Blog

March 2015 Blog – by Bert Maes

Being a partner in the IMI CHEM21 consortium makes one sit back and reflect on the way things are currently being done in a typical research lab and whether one can make meaningful improvements on sustainability in an academic setting. After all, one is normally concerned with sustainability when focusing on the “on-scale” production of chemicals in chemical development and production units, not in R&D labs where typically small quantities are used. Developing new sustainable synthetic methods for fine chemicals production, as the Antwerp team does, does not necessarily imply that the CO2 footprint of the lab itself is just fine. Several changes have been made to the “day-to-day” functioning of my laboratory (ORSY) since the start of the IMI CHEM21 project. Firstly, we have chosen to adopt the GSK solvent selection guide. The guide has been posted throughout the laboratory and has changed the way graduate students and postdocs select solvents for their daily activities. Previously, no-one routinely gave much thought to the greenness of a particular solvent when starting up a reaction. Secondly, we have also adopted a chromatography solvent recycling program in an effort to reduce our waste output. Our initial protocols for recycling heptane based mixtures through simple distillation for re-use in chromatography have allowed us to build confidence in the potential success of a large scale solvent recycling program, uncommon for academic labs. Ultimately, this has led to the purchase of an automated spinning-band distillation apparatus, which allows us to set our sights on recycling a large share of our solvent waste streams, thereby reducing our CO2 footprint. Thirdly, we have worked towards further segregating all waste streams in the laboratory (e.g. chemical, paper, plastics, metal, glass), reducing our true “chemical” waste output and allowing us to re-purpose useful items. The latter is also a reflection of a Flemish mentality; as Flanders is known to be a European champion in household waste recycling. The introduction of the “Being Green” segment in our weekly group meetings has become an ideal opportunity to have open discussions on how one can improve sustainability in daily lab activities and it has become a forum through which fundamental changes in attitude have been made possible. After all, none of these “green” improvements would be attainable by simply imposing new lab rules as a group manager: self-analysis and co-operation on the part of every ORSY member have been key factors in making a success of our efforts to improve sustainability. The whole of society actually needs to go through a similar process of introspection with respect to sustainable living. Developing an awareness of how one does things on a daily basis and what one can improve is the first step. A lot of small changes make a huge contribution to the whole. One should not merely point out what others must do, but each individual must begin with themselves! I think CHEM21 has a pioneering role to fulfill in this respect within the European Union.

Bert Maes

University of Antwerp