MRS: Materials and the environment

How hard are materials researchers really thinking about the environmental impact of new materials that they are designing? How can we make materials research a green science? John Warner of the Warner Babcock Institute presented an interesting perspective on this topic at the Green Chemistry session at the Materials Research Society Fall meeting on Monday.

While many researchers sell their new materials as more environmentally sustainable, it is often just one aspect of the materials development process which has been highlighted as benign. This is to be lauded and certainly suggests a general shift towards ‘greener’ thinking in materials science. But there are numerous issues which need to be borne in mind in order to make a material that is truly sustainable, twelve according to Warner. For example, he believes that the scientist needs consider the prevention of waste during synthesis, less hazardous reagents, energy considerations, renewable feedstocks, formation of unnecessary derivatives, use of catalysis, design for degradation, green analytical methods, amongst others. It seems a huge challenge for materials scientists to consider all these issues on top of creating the new functionality for which their new material was originally intended.

But there is an additional benefit. Warner pointed out that one of the greatest impediments to commercialising new materials and products is environmental regulation. By minimising the environmental impact of their materials as far as possible, right from the initial materials design phase, scientists will achieve an additional competitive advantage over those who have not.

What is required in the next few years is the development of a new “toolbox” of basic green chemical methods to manipulate chemical bonds, said Warner. This will be the foundation from which green materials science design will grow.

Warner also pointed out that materials science and chemistry students are rarely if ever provided with opportunities to study and thus understand the toxicity and environmental impact of materials. This needs to change, he argued, so that the next generation of scientists will have the insight to understand the how to develop new materials and processes to inflict the least damage on our environment and get the most out of our finite resources.


Rosamund Daw (Senior Editor, Nature)