Tucked in the second floor of Hildebrand Hall, just above the Chemistry Department Library, are the unassuming offices of the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry (BCGC)—one of the most interdisciplinary and collaborative research centers at the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley). BCGC is the Berkeley flagship for safer and more sustainable chemistry, reaching across campus and across the world to form partnerships with other academic units, as well as companies, to advance the cause. Because chemistry is complicated—and the business of making things is expensive—devising chemistry solutions that are more sustainable and cost-effective requires input not just from chemists, but also toxicologists, energy systems experts, engineers, architects, public health researchers, and, of course, the companies themselves. Herein lies the premise of the BCGC: the marriage of academic interdisciplinarity with real-world chemistry challenges facing companies, such as Levi Strauss & Co., Autodesk Inc., or Costco Wholesale Corporation (all former or current BCGC partners).
The BCGC was founded in 2010 and led by chemist-turned-entrepreneur Martin “Marty” Mulvihill, who, working with John Arnold and Michelle Douskey of the Berkeley Chemistry Department and Megan Schwartzman of the UC Berkeley Public Health School, oversaw the development of the early years of the center. Much of the BCGC’s early work was focused on developing and implementing a “greener” curriculum for the undergraduate organic chemistry labs, designing experiments that used safer reagents and identifying less hazardous reactions for teaching organic chemistry principles. Indeed, the legacy of these first few years is evident in the lab courses taught at Berkeley today. In 2012, two changes advanced the BCGC’s work further, bringing the center into its own: the inaugural year of the “Greener Solutions” course and the beginning of the National Science Foundation-funded Systems Approach to Green Energy (SAGE) graduate fellowship program.
The “Greener Solutions” course, taught by Dr. Schwarzman, executive director Tom McKeag, and associate director Billy Hart-Cooper, partners organizations with a chemistry challenge with an interdisciplinary team of UC Berkeley graduate students. The students are tasked with proposing a range of actionable solutions using the latest advances in sustainable chemistry and bio-inspired design. The course challenges students to consider analogies of the problem that might be found in nature and to think about how nature solves that problem. The students typically take a systems approach to their recommendations and consider the regulatory, business, chemistry, public health, and environmental implications of their choices. This is supported by faculty and guest speakers brought in specifically to educate on germane topics. Often, the strongest of these proposals leads to additional projects, partnerships, and internships for the students, the BCGC, and the participating company.
In tandem with the coursework offered by BCGC, the SAGE fellowship has provided financial support for graduate students conducting research on safer materials and sustainable chemistries. As the ranks of SAGE fellows swelled, so, too, did the strength of BCGC’s network of campus expertise. Students from public health, energy and resources, architecture, chemistry, toxicology, mechanical engineering, environmental health sciences, civil and environmental engineering, environmental science policy and management, and others received tuition and stipends for two years as long as they followed a simple mandate: Use your science expertise to make the world greener. As a result, the SAGE program has generated more than 150 papers, multiple book chapters, and a few patents on subjects ranging from computational toxicology to aluminum recycling, the design of safer preservatives for personal care products, and lignite coal power plants in Kosovo. Many fields of study converged in the SAGE program, where toxicologists could argue with architects over the composition of building materials and environmental chemists could talk with energy researchers about the latest trends in carbon capture technologies. More than a few careers were shaped by the program, and dozens of dissertations could not have been written without it.
This year, the BCGC saw the sunsetting of the SAGE program. On April 30th, the BCGC held a symposium to celebrate the success of the program. Dozens of students, faculty, and industry partners attended for a day of discussions and presentations. As the PowerPoint slides clicked by and former SAGE participants shared their stories, conversations and debates were sparked among the attendees. Like the green shoots that pierce the remains of a brushfire, new projects were proposed, and novel partnerships were suggested, fed by the stream of interdisciplinary projects past and the promise of a more sustainable future.
Though the SAGE program will be ending, the BCGC will continue its three-fold mission of research, education and engagement. The Greener Solutions course will still be taught each fall, and the center will continue to expand its research and engagement with industry and society, bringing new opportunities for collaboration, education, and, of course, greener chemistry.
SOT Postdoctoral Member and frequent Communiqué contributor David Faulkner is a researcher at the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry.