Ask most people in the chemistry community and they’ll tell you green chemistry seems to be everywhere these days. Depending on the context, this is either mentioned with pride at our collective accomplishments or with a subtle undertone of perplexity. Just about everyone seems amazed at the rapid increase in individuals and organizations that affiliate themselves with green chemistry.

Even the term “green chemistry” is a fairly recent development. Its beginnings can be traced back to 1998 and the publication of the 12 Principles by Paul Anastas and John Warner in their book Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice. The ideas behind green chemistry, however, are not new — chemists have always sought to find ways to use fewer resources, reduce the toxicity of their products, improve process efficiency and create less waste. But the gathering of these ideas under one umbrella, while giving it a name, enables us to prioritize their collective incorporation into everyday chemistry research and education. In doing so, we can ensure that Canadian chemists of the future have the proper training and resources to carry out innovative chemistry in a way that is inherently safer, more environmentally responsible and more efficient.

Tak-Hang (Bill) Chan.

Research roots

Green chemistry in Canada found its early leadership in Tak-Hang (Bill) Chan, FCIC, now professor emeritus at McGill University. In 2000, Chan established the Canadian chapter of the Green Chemistry Institute with the help of Anastas, followed by the Canadian Green Chemistry Network (CGCN) in 2002. The CGCN connected individual academic researchers and government scientists whose work related to green chemistry, gathering previously isolated efforts into one united group.

As a researcher at McGill, Chan had worked on replacing organic solvents with water, publishing the influential book, Organic Reactions in Aqueous Media, with his then doctoral student Chao-Jun (CJ) Li, FCIC, in 1997. A few years later, in 2003, Li himself would be hired at McGill, followed by Audrey Moores in 2006, as the start of a series of strategic recruitments that would turn into the large hub of green chemistry researchers that exists at the university today.

Throughout Canada, the early and mid-2000s saw the establishment of green chemistry research groups at various universities, accompanied by the incorporation of green chemistry content into the undergraduate curriculum by research and teaching faculty alike.

The first green chemistry courses were offered at McGill and at York University in 2002, created by Chan and John Andraos, respectively. They were soon followed by other institutions; notable examples included Philip Jessop at Queen’s University, Andrew Dicks at the University of Toronto, Francesca Kerton at Memorial University and Jason Clyburne at St. Mary’s University. The majority of these examples have been elective courses, which has the disadvantage of adding to the perception that green chemistry is a separate afterthought to “non-green” chemistry. However, many faculty members are now building on the significant advancements that have been made by seamlessly integrating this same content into existing courses and labs.

Opportunities for graduate­ students

The growing presence of green chemistry-focused research groups has also provided graduate students with the opportunity to gain working experience in this area. McGill is again a leading example within Canada, as it not only has an impressive concentration of green chemistry researchers but is also home to the highly collaborative NSERC CREATE in Green Chemistry program. Through its annual workshop and case competition, the program brings together graduate students across chemistry, engineering and management to build business cases for green chemistry technologies, while giving participants an excellent opportunity to experience the need for collaboration across disciplines. In 2009, Li co-founded the Centre in Green Chemistry and Catalysis with Université de Montréal professor André Charette, FCIC. This network, affiliated with all of Quebec’s major universities, further catalyses green chemistry work across the province.

At many institutions, though, there remains a gap in the resources that are made available to graduate students who simply wish to learn about green chemistry. A group of a dozen graduate students at the University of Toronto, myself included, responded to this gap in our own education by founding the Green Chemistry Initiative (GCI) in 2012. The GCI is a student-led organization that provides researchers with educational resources and professional development opportunities. Seminars and annual symposia invite Canadian and global leaders in academia and industry to showcase how the underlying principles of green chemistry are implemented across a variety of sectors. The GCI has also organized case studies and workshops, which allow participants to gain hands-on experience in applying their knowledge to real examples of chemical processes and technologies.

In the past few years, the GCI has also collaborated with teaching faculty in undergraduate curriculum development. As a result of this combined effort, in 2016 the University of Toronto became the first school outside of the United States to sign Beyond Benign Green Chemistry Commitment, pledging to provide all undergraduate chemistry students with a working knowledge of green chemistry and toxicology as an integral part of their education. The success of the GCI has inspired students to start similar organizations at various institutions — including McGill, the University of British Columbia and Thompson Rivers University, as well as a few others internationally.

The future of green chemistry­

Outside of academic programs, the growing emphasis on green chemistry is reflected in the Canadian chemistry community as well. GreenCentre Canada, a not-for-profit organization established in 2009, is a global leader in the development and commercialization of early-stage green chemistry technologies. The Chemical Institute of Canada, through its Canadian Green Chemistry and Engineering Network, recognizes the contributions of individuals and organizations with annual awards.

An education that includes green chemistry provides chemists with highly valuable skills that extend far beyond the immediate association with environmental benefits.They are being taught to consider not only a standalone chemical reaction but also its resource inputs and waste outputs, as well as the safety, efficiency and cost of chemical processes. Canada needs, and will benefit from, chemists who can incorporate inherently safer design into every step of innovation. It is not a question of whether or not green chemistry has a future but rather recognizing that green chemistry is the future.