Chemists create greener research labs
The American Chemical Society has developed 12 principles of green chemistry, which include measures such as designing safer chemicals, energy efficiency and pollution prevention. (Image Source: AdobeStock.)

Chemists create greener research labs

Professors are implementing sustainable processes and using equipment that generates less heat — and that’s just the start.
ByGrayson Schmidt

USC’s efforts to become more sustainable have reached into nearly every corner of the University Park and Health Science campuses — including the chemistry labs.

At the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Jessica Parr, associate professor (teaching) of chemistry, and Travis Williams, professor of chemistry, have recently implemented techniques to make their respective research labs greener, advancing both the university’s priorities and the best practices of their discipline.

In 1998, the American Chemical Society developed 12 principles of green chemistry, which include measures such as designing safer chemicals, energy efficiency and pollution prevention, as well as the proper disposal of wastes.

Now, Parr’s freshman labs have nearly eliminated the use of mercury in experiments, including the replacement of old mercury thermometers. Likewise, during experiments that produce water or salt that can be poured down the drain, students are instructed to use a waste container for the product.

“If we introduce students to these practices early, as they go on to other laboratory experiences, they hopefully will retain with them some of these ideas and sustainable processes,” she says.

Williams says the next challenge is how labs can reduce the use of energy in general. Generating X-rays for things like diffraction and tomography, for example, is a tremendously energy-intensive activity, as is cooling the machines down. But Williams’ lab brought in a new machine — with help from the Anton Burg Foundation and the National Science Foundation — for the chemistry department’s X-ray lab that has reduced energy usage significantly.

“We upgraded to a new microfocus diffractometer, which is not only a much better scientific instrument, but it uses a fraction of the electricity,” Williams explains. “Then we put some blinds on the windows to keep the solar heat out, and now we’ve nearly halved the amount of electricity we use.”

Parr knows there’s no end-all technology that’s going to solve the major problems we face, but she says it’s the small changes from people in all fields that will make the biggest impact.

“Similar to climate change, I’m not sure we have that silver bullet just yet,” she says. “But I think everybody can always do a little bit better than what they’re doing now.”

See USC News for more on the story >>