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Green chemistry: sustainability thinking at molecular level

Hello, this is Cynthia from THINK-team. We have two Cynthias now at the office, please don't get confused ;)

Last weekend, I contributed to the SDG coffee program in which I had to explain the impacts of climate change on the energy sector and vice versa. When I tried to explain why energy contributes to climate change, I recalled a concept that attracted me to pursue my master degree more to environmental issues, namely green chemistry. I suppose this concept is as old as the sustainability concept, more than 20 years ago.

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Commonly, green chemistry is defined as

The design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances (Beach et al, 2009).

In green chemistry, prevention is one of the key strategies on how to manage the risk of generating hazardous substances.

Risk = f(hazard x exposure)

Thus, minimizing the hazard, the risk will be decreasing. So, how the relevance between climate change and the energy sector?

Figure 1. Waste Landfill Figure 2. Coal Power plants

Let me give you some examples of green chemistry that relate to the sustainability concept. When we burn fossil fuel that consists of carbon and hydrogen, the main product will include CO2 as one of the greenhouse gases. So, to reduce the hazard of climate change, renewable options are necessary, because they do not generate CO2 from the combustion process. Hence, promoting renewable and clean energy is one of the solutions to reduce the climate change risks.

Another example is waste management which produces methane (CH4), another type of GHG. The common practice of waste management in Indonesia is dumping the waste to the open landfill, usually without proper segregation. At a certain height, the organic waste will process an anaerobic process that generates methane. FYI, methane has 22 times higher global warming potential compared to CO2. From the following reaction, we know that methane can actually be burnt to generate energy.

CH4 + 2O2 ---> CO2 + 2H2O ∆H= −891 kJ/mol

The negative number means that the reaction generates energy in the process. By converting methane to CO2, we could harness the energy and reduce the GHG emission as we at do it in designing our biogas digester for farmers.

I hope knowing the cause of climate change at the molecular level gives you more ideas to minimize negative impacts to mitigate the climate change impacts and bring economical and social benefits.

Any other example you do to reduce the negative impacts on the environment?

Further readings: S. Beach E, Cui Z, T. Anastas P (2009) Green Chemistry: A design framework for sustainability. Energy Environ Sci 2:1038–1049.

CH4 + 2O2 à CO2 + 2H2O

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