Imagine a world where business is green, sustainable and biorenewable; where an increase in environmentally friendly products inevitably leads to new jobs; and where waste is transformed and developed into new industries. This isn’t just a utopic vision; it’s what Robin Rogers, newly appointed Canada Excellence Research Chair in Green Chemistry and Green Chemicals at McGill University has set out to achieve. To do so, he is following the example of one of his Alabama heroes: George Washington Carver.
Carver was an American scientist and inventor credited with saving Alabama cotton farmers from starvation and ruin during the great boll weevil infestations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While working at Alabama’s Tuskegee University, Carver researched and promoted alternative crops, including peanuts and soybeans. He found they revitalized the soil that had been depleted by repeated plantings of cotton. These new and marketable crops ultimately generated a whole new economy.
“What Carver did is what I see us doing with green chemistry,” said Rogers. “He created a sort of social contract between academia and society—in this case, the farmers. He taught the farmers how to grow a new crop—peanuts—then developed and patented hundreds of new products, including peanut butter, to improve livelihoods and lives. Today, green chemistry is perfectly positioned in society to have the same effect.”
Imagine if we can do this with plastics and develop new, renewable polymeric materials that can completely replace synthetic plastics.
Where Carver worked with peanuts, Rogers is developing new products from renewable polymers, trying to move society towards more sustainable consumption. He understands people are often influenced as much by cost and quality as they are by a desire to be sustainable, so his research is geared towards providing high-quality alternatives that are cheaper, last longer, and are made in a sustainable way.
This “transformative transition” already has several precedents. Rogers cites the example of photographic film, once the only way to take photos and now almost entirely replaced by digital technology. While there might be downsides to digital, he said, it was a step in the right direction.
“Imagine if we can do this with plastics and develop new, renewable polymeric materials that can completely replace synthetic plastics,” he said. “If we can develop a material that is cheaper and stronger and lasts longer—a material that is as strong and safe in your automobile or plane as it is in your toothbrush—then people will use it … perhaps not because it is ‘greener’, but because it is lower priced. But it also has to be better than what they have and it has to be sustainable.”
Rogers has already had exceptional results with transformative transitions. For example, in 2002, he and his team at The University of Alabama discovered a solvent capable of dissolving cellulose, the major polymer in paper. Rogers then found out he could extract this polymer directly from trees, using ionic liquids, to create a biomass resource that can be directly used to produce things such as fuel, fibres, and advanced materials. The technology has since been licenced to BASF, where it is currently being commercialized.