A third year lab course on organic synthesis techniques should have been just one more milestone for University of Toronto chemistry students John Russell and Leanna Smid. Instead, it spawned an entrepreneurial adventure that could alter the environmental footprint of teaching laboratories everywhere.
“We both noticed that the issue of solvent waste was ever prevalent in undergraduate laboratories, where litres of solvent are generated during many laboratory courses,” recalls Russell.
This included solvents such as acetone, commonly used for removing residue from glassware before final washing. Although the Department of Chemistry has a centralized acetone recycling system in place for its research labs, much more of this waste is generated — and could be recovered — in other laboratory settings. That possibility captured Russell and Smid’s imaginations, which prompted them to explore the possibility of manufacturing a much more accessible alternative.
“Instead of collecting a bunch of unknown waste at a central location, what we would rather see is having a device implemented in laboratories by itself,” explains Russell. “This would be a small device that could be implemented on a bench top or in a fume hood so that people would be recycling these solvents in-house.”
The tangible outcome of that suggestion is SoluSave, a start-up company he and Smid launched last year. And in short order they discovered that they were not alone in their enthusiasm for this kind of recycling. Just a couple of months after starting their venture, they entered the competition for U of T’s first ever Sustainability Innovation Prize. Although they initially assumed it would simply be a useful learning experience, they beat out a field of some 100 entrants to take one of three $5,000 prizes.
“We were very proud to win and it instilled a great deal of confidence,” says Russell. “Sustainability is important for researchers and it is also a viable business avenue.”
That conclusion sums up the value proposition of green chemistry, according to U of T Chemistry Professor Andrew Dicks. The university committed to incorporating this perspective into its curriculum several years ago, and he actively discussed it as the lab coordinator for the organic synthesis course. Russell and Smid therefore turned to him for all the details about how recycling of solvents worked and how it might be improved.
“I’ve very much beena guide on the side, an unofficial mentor,” he says. “They’ve come to me with questions about logistics, but it’s totally their idea and they’ve driven the whole thing.”
Dicks adds that he oversaw the donation of some of the department’s large-scale glassware, which is now redundant for teaching purposes but which is ideal for the R&D work of SoluSave. Leanna’s old high school has also provided space where that work can take place, and SoluSave’s staff has expanded to include two other U of T students: Joseph Kamangu, in his third year of Civil Engineering, and Diana Li, in her final year of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry.
The students also were accepted into the University of Toronto Hatchery, a startup incubator program, which Dicks regards as yet another indication of how persuasive their idea has been. It testifies to the virtue of green chemistry as a way of viewing the entire field in a new and much more positive way.
“Green chemistry makes a ton of sense to students,” he argues. “They want to learn about it. They see the point of learning about it. And it’s a hope for them — like nothing else, actually. It’s changed lots of people’s thinking about how chemistry is done and what chemistry is as a science.”