Good chemistry: New network spreads the green gospel in chemical sector


Tired of seeing chemicals considered a necessary evil, UGent researchers have launched Green-Chem, which helps commercialise sustainable practices in the sector

Putting waste to work

As one Flemish professor so aptly points out, “chemical” is a four-letter word. “The chemical sector mostly appears in the press when there is a leak, explosion or scandal,” says professor Chris Stevens of Ghent University’s (UGent) department of sustainable organic chemistry. “But the sector is essential to our welfare.”

It’s also making efforts to become more eco-friendly, the goal of the new Green-Chem network of which Stevens is the chair. UGent is collaborating with foreign universities and companies on green chemistry projects.

By increasing the sustainability of chemical products and processes, says Stevens, UGent hopes to improve the sector’s reputation and communicate more clearly the beneficial applications of chemistry.

“Chemical processes are needed to create crucial products, including clothes and medications,” Stevens explains. “But their complexity makes them difficult to understand.” Experts in the field, he says, “want to speak more with one voice in order to have a bigger impact on society.”

UGent spearheaded the new network, which brings together academics and industry partners from all over the world. Among them are universities in Brazil, China, France, the UK and the US. By uniting their expertise, breakthroughs in sustainable chemistry can be more easily achieved.

Oil and shellfish

UGent, for example, collaborated with Toulouse University on the development of food packaging made up of coriander oil and crustacean waste. The packaging can prolong the shelf life of food.

“Experts in Toulouse extracted the oil from coriander with special technology,” says Stevens, “while the UGent team had the knowhow to modify the chemical components into a product with antimicrobial qualities, ideal for food packaging.”

Green chemistry innovations can thus use renewable resources like plants rather than non-renewable resources like petroleum. Another goal of green chemistry is to work towards a circular economy by using waste as a resource to make new products. Crustacean waste, in this case.

Pressing oranges in Brazil leaves behind a residue, which we will analyse to see if it can be valuable for other chemical applications

- Professor Chris Stevens

The coriander project caught the attention of French company Ovalie Innovation, which will now attempt to establish industrial production for the extraction process and commercialise the oil.

“We are also in contact with Brazilian experts who told us about a problem in local companies that process oranges,” says Stevens. “Pressing the oranges leaves behind a residue that only serves to dirty their machines. We will now analyse if this waste product can be valuable for other chemical applications.”

Stevens believes that in the future the chemical sector can help to reduce industry’s ecological footprint by using CO2 for chemical processes. “We have already succeeded in this in the laboratory, which in about 15 years might be implemented in businesses.”

Training workers

Apart from exchanging experiences and collaborating on research projects, the partners will also exchange students, lecturers and educational materials. PhD students can work at a partner university, for instance, and lecturers can travel between institutions.

Co-operation with the business sector is crucial to the Green-Chem network. It has already carried out a brainstorming session with Belgian chemical companies to determine how the research can meet their needs.

The network’s industry advisory board includes representatives from Essenscia, Belgium’s umbrella organisation for the chemistry and life sciences sectors, and local affiliates of the American-owned Eastman chemical company.

Green-Chem is also considering training sessions for staff in the sector on more eco-friendly approaches. Proceeds from these trainings could help the network to become more self-sufficient, says Stevens. “We currently have a budget for five years.”

Photo courtesy UGent