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What's your sense of the awareness of these issues? Certainly consumers seem to be learning more, but what about the chemists out there? Do they have enough information?
Warner: Not yet. There's not enough information. They're thirsty for it, they want it. Many, many universities have faculty who say they want to integrate this into their teaching but they don't know how.
Five years ago, green chemistry was kind of unheard of. Now, if you look at the basic freshman textbooks, organic chemistry textbooks, about 50 percent of them have a couple pages on green chemistry, maybe a little section in the back or something like that. Pretty soon it will start being integrated a little more. It's a very, very slow process but it's starting to take root.
What's driving that?
Warner: The students. I had something like 120 students pass through my research lab as a professor in the last 10 years. The average time it's taken for a student to get a job is three days.
I'd never suggest hiring an inferior chemist because they know green chemistry. But if they are a really good chemist and they know green chemistry, wow!
Just think of how many times an inventor comes up with a process and the company gets all excited: 'we're going to go to manufacture it.' And somebody says, "You using that solvent? We can't manufacture with this solvent--the EPA is regulating; it costs us this much." It makes an entire project useless. Someone has to go back and has to reinvent the process or scrap it. So if those people at the very beginning understood those real-world implications, it would be a much more efficient process going from invention. So industry is all over this.
What do you want to do at the institute you founded?
Warner: Essentially, the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry is working with industry to do beaker and flask chemistry to develop these technologies. We will work with industry very quickly and very intelligently on problems. If such and such a company realizes that an adhesive is potentially carcinogenic, we're going to help them find a noncarcinogenic one...Ironically, that's where A Civil Action is from.
How will you transfer technology?
Warner: Essentially, the idea is that it will be company by company. Obviously, we need a sustainable model to employ because part of the process is to have post-docs in the institute train the next generation of scientists simultaneously so it has to be sustainable. But at the same time, I'm in it just to get the product out there.
I'm sure you've heard of William McDonough, who wrote the book Cradle to Cradle about sustainable design. It was written with a chemist. How does your work differ?
Warner: He's working with people to say, "You have to use the best technology available. Why are you using this when you could use this?" When he comes up empty, the chemist's job is to invent that alternative.