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Green Chemistry: Sustainable Renewal at UC Berkeley
by Sheba Plamthottam

For the past two years, the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry (BCGC) has taken on the task of redesigning and rebuilding the College of Chemistry’s undergraduate laboratory curriculum. Through the BCGC, a few selected undergrads from the College of Chemistry and beyond have been modifying these labs to exemplify green chemistry––a philosophy of chemical research that encourages the design of products and processes that minimize the use and generation of hazardous substances. This summer their goal was to develop labs for Chemistry 1A, 1B, 4A and 4B that display the principles of green chemistry.

In seeking to integrate a green method for nanoparticle synthesis in the general chemistry lab curriculum, I worked on a project involving the preparation of ZnO nanocrystals, whose growth kinetics I observed using UV-Vis Spectrophotometry. Nanoparticles of semiconductor materials like ZnO have different optical properties from the bulk material, including an enlarged energy band gap. The ZnO nanoparticles absorb at a shorter wavelength than ZnO bulk particles, and thus have the potential to be used in the cosmetic industry to produce products such as non-allergenic sunscreens. Hopefully, the ZnO nanocrystal lab will encourage first year undergraduates to learn more about green nanoscience.

Dr. Martin Mulvihill, the Associate Director for Education & Outreach at the BCGC, spent much of his summer supervising and advising students like me in the lab. He said that he hopes to see expanded course offerings for both undergraduates and graduate students in green chemistry. He stated, “This will include both new laboratory exercises and also more upper-division/graduate classes that take an interdisciplinary approach to teaching the development of safer more efficient chemicals and processes. I hope these shifts will also lead to more green chemistry related research being pursued by faculty at Berkeley.”

Dr. Michelle Douskey, Chemistry 1A Lab Coordinator and Lecturer, also took an active role in this program. She enjoyed working in the lab with students one-on-one––quite different from the large chemistry lecture setting that she is accustomed to. She commented that this kind of research is incredibly fun and introduces students to “...the way science is really done.” She hopes that in a few years the students will have developed a host of new labs, so instructors can pick and choose the ones they would like to include in their curriculums. Dr. Douskey also hopes that in the future, simple demos could be developed in order to to introduce young students in grade school and high school to the concept of green chemistry.

With the continued support of interested students and enthusiastic staff, the BCGC will continue to host a variety of programs to encourage green chemistry. Dr. Mulvihill gratefully added, “The education program at Berkeley has been a result of support that we have received from the California Department of Toxic Substance Control and would not have been possible without the BCGC leadership team, including Mike Wilson and Meg Schwarzman, who originally wrote the proposal.” Support for the program and outreach are vital for its continuation. Looking towards the future of green chemistry, Dr. Douskey expressed the importance of more resources, student involvement, and support to keep this successful program running. We must ask questions like, “How can we support green chemistry, enable it, encourage it, and sustain it?” Leadership in the program and student involvement is necessary to keep the program successful. She added, “Sustainable renewal is hard, but these are solvable problems.”

Dr. Mulvihill advised, “Students started the first Green Chemistry Seminar on campus and students remain one of the main drivers behind the green chemistry efforts. If you are interested in green chemistry and sustainability, be sure to let your professors know!”


The green chemistry team would like to give a special thanks to Professor John Arnold, the BCGC director, Bob Bergman, the Associate Director for Green Chemistry at the BCGC, and Richard A. Mathies, Dean of the College of Chemistry, for their continued support.