Spotlight On: Robin Rogers

A 'green' chemist following in the footsteps of George Washington Carver

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.

“Canada’s forestry industry has suffered in recent times,” said Rogers. “But with McGill’s unparalleled expertise in new, green manufacturing technologies [McGill conducted pioneering research on nanocrystalline cellulose, inspiring many new products for the forest industry], we can go to the forestry industry and say ‘Let’s not make paper anymore; let’s make polymers or renewable plastics or medical fibres and materials.’ If we can find the right people to work with, we have the potential to make a major contribution to the industry.”

The fishery industry is another area in which Rogers believes he can make a significant contribution. He has recently founded a start-up industry that uses chitin—a polymer found in the shells of shrimps, crabs, and other crustaceans—as the basis for medical products such as sutures and biocompatible supports for bone growth. Rogers believes that, if properly developed, materials derived from chitin could make shrimp shells worth more than shrimp meat.

 That’s what we are trying to do: build a portfolio of new environmentally friendly products which will lead to new jobs and grow the economy. 

“We discovered a unique way to obtain the polymer directly from the waste,” he said. “That’s what we are trying to do: build a portfolio of new environmentally friendly products which will lead to new jobs and grow the economy. Ultimately, we hope to be able to completely replace synthetic plastics made from more polluting industries.”

Rogers sees Canada as a place that understands the importance of sustainability and green chemistry.

“There is receptiveness here for innovation that betters society and isn’t out to just make money,” he said. “And McGill is the best place in the world to be working to take sustainable technology to fruition.”