November 12, 2007 4:00 AM PST

Green chemistry's 'race to innovation'

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Just a few steps behind green tech, green chemistry is the latest movement that's both a source of technology innovation and a rallying cry for environmentalists.

Green chemistry calls for designing chemicals to be environmentally benign and commercially viable. But its reach goes far beyond reducing toxins in drugs or children's toys, the latest being the recall of the Aqua Dots toy on Wednesday.

Experts say the principles of green chemistry, such as reducing waste and making materials safer, can affect everything from climate change to the global supply of food and water. And big problems often translate into big business opportunities.

That's why start-ups are increasingly relying on advanced materials to get an edge in biofuels, bioplastics, green building materials, or environmentally friendly home products. For large pharmaceutical and chemical companies, green chemistry is a way to reduce industrial waste and avoid regulatory headaches.

"No matter what industry you're in, you can integrate green chemistry into your operations," says Paul Anastas, a pioneer in the field of green chemistry and professor at Yale University's Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering. "We want to create a race to the top, a race to innovation," he said.

Anastas and other leaders in the field organized the Green Chemistry Business Summit held recently in Haverhill, Mass., where speakers argued that the field is a nascent but promising field for technology investment.

Paul Anastas
Paul Anastas

Although the term "green chemistry" is still esoteric, the negative effects of traditional chemistry practices are becoming front-page news, in much the way that global warming and environmental problems have.

This year saw several recalls of toys with harmful chemicals. A number of deaths were linked to the use of diethylene glycol, an antifreeze used as a cheap replacement for glycerin in cough syrups and toothpastes. California passed a law restricting the use of potentially harmful chemicals, including phthalates, in everyday items like shampoo and nail polish.

The root of these chemical hazards is that the people who design the compounds in everyday products are not adequately aware of toxicity, said John Warner, director for the Center for Green Chemistry at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and chief technology officer of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry.

And as new chemicals come onto the market, including materials made with nanotechnology, there isn't enough understanding about the associated risks of individual chemicals, or how they react with others.

"Right now, the synthetic chemicals made since the end of World War II are bio-accumulating in the biosphere and we don't know the risks of those chemicals even on a one-by-one basis," said Anastas.

VCs get chemistry 2.0 bug
Rather than dwell on the harm of toxic chemicals or call for more stringent regulations, speakers at the Green Chemistry Business Summit--and green-chemistry investors--have a decidedly upbeat spin.

Innovation around materials is integral to the investment parameters of Rockport Capital Parters, said Daniel Hullah, an associate at the venture capital firm. That focus on materials touches biofuels, building materials, battery technologies, and power electronics.

Green-chem companies Rockport has already funded include: EcoSmart Technologies, which makes a naturally derived pesticide, and Advanced Electron Beams, which has developed a way to clean bottles in factories without chemicals and using far less energy.

This isn't some kind of noble wish. It's not about being nice to the birds and the bunnies. This is a design protocol.
--Paul Anastas, professor of green chemistry, Yale

"The markets for chemicals--both specialty and commodity chemicals--are huge," said Hullah.

High-profile green-tech venture capitalist Vinod Khosla said on Tuesday that he has already made a number of investments in start-ups inventing advanced materials for water filtration, bioplastics, and building materials, not including his substantial bets in biofuels.

One of the drivers behind green chemistry is growing consumer interest in environmentally friendly products. Another theme is using materials to make industry more energy-efficient, and potentially more cost-effective, as in the case of water purification, Khosla said.

Anastas said smart chemistry will allow for biofuels that don't threaten the food supply and that produce less greenhouse gas than fossil fuels. Although biofuels come from renewable plants, studies have shown that production of corn-based ethanol, for instance, can be nearly as polluting as gasoline.

Closely watched start-ups like Amyris Biotechnologies and Codexis, which won the Environmental Protection Agency's Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge award, are using chemical engineering to optimize the attributes of biofuels.

CONTINUED: The business case…
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