Thursday, May 21, 2009

Professor works with students to develop "green" chemistry at Whitworth

By now, most people have become familiar with the phrase "go green," whether through listening to a political speech or watching a hybrid car commercial or reading the label on an organic food product. At Whitworth, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Kerry Breno is helping the university's chemistry department get "greener" by working with students to develop new chemicals that are compatible with human health and the environment.

Breno says that she and the budding chemists she teaches are working side-by-side in the classroom and research lab to promote, encourage and develop green chemistry. By definition, green chemistry seeks to promote awareness of sustainable practices during the discovery, manufacture and use of chemicals that are human and earth-friendly.

"Students are exposed to and use green chemistry principles to evaluate products and processes in the classroom," Breno says. "But the use of existing technology lets us only go so far."

Breno says new technologies are in high demand to meet the challenges of the future. As scientists and others develop more sustainable chemistry, they also must design processes to reduce energy consumption and eliminate their dependence on volatile organic solvents that are toxic and highly polluting.

Breno and her students are working to meet these needs by researching the synthesis and testing of water-soluble catalysts. They're focusing on catalysts because catalysts are like multi-tools: They have many useful features that encourage their use. Those features include reducing the energy needed for a chemical reaction, increasing the selectivity of a reaction, and reducing material costs due to efficient use of materials and recycling of the catalyst. Combing these traits with water-solubility results in a supertool that will aid in separating product from reagent and will greatly reduce health and environmental hazards by replacing other, more toxic or flammable solvents.

So far, Breno and her students have made catalysts that can make polyethylene polymers (plastics) and they're working on testing catalysts that will make controlled hydrolysis reactions used in many areas of industry. The students presented their research at the Murdock College Science Research Conference and at the Spokane Intercollegiate Research Conference this spring, and Breno presented their work at a recent National American Chemical Society meeting.

"While the work is not easy, students who work on these projects learn an amazing array of techniques and develop independent research skills," Breno says. "Each day, we work to get one step closer to finding green chemistry solutions for tomorrow, right here on campus. But fortunately, our discoveries don’t just stay on campus. And along the way, I get to work with talented undergraduates who have now developed the skills to be leaders in the green revolution."

The work going on in Whitworth's chemistry department is part of a larger effort under way at the university to make the campus greener and to promote sustainable practices among members of the Whitworth community. Some of those efforts include going trayless in the dining facilities, planting a small sustainable wheat farm on campus, increasing recycling, and designing the planned new biology/chemistry facility to meet the Green Building Council's LEED Silver Certification standards.

Each spring, Whitworth also hosts its Sustainability Competition, sponsored by the university's sustainability committee, in which members of the Whitworth community form teams to compete at sustainability by doing simple things such as turning off lights and using reusable mugs instead of paper cups. To find out more about Whitworth's sustainability efforts and initiatives, visit www.whitworth.edu/sustainability.

Located in Spokane, Wash., Whitworth is a private liberal arts university affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). The university, which has an enrollment of 2,600 students, offers 53 undergraduate and graduate degree programs.

Contacts:

Emily Proffitt, public information officer, Whitworth University, (509) 777-4703 or eproffitt@whitworth.edu.