needs. This is an important step toward keeping the
momentum going for introducing wind and solar into
the grid. It's the idea that you can actually use these not
just for making power, but for actually generating val-
Working within the Department of Energy’s Joint
Center for Artificial Photosynthesis means practicing
green chemistry is second nature to Ager, but he under-
stands that it’s not always the first thing on a chemist’s
mind. Regardless, he says there are some simple ways to
prioritize sustainability in the lab.
In his own lab, Ager says he often does an energy
analysis, where he considers the amount of energy it
takes to do one process, and uses that to figure out
if the process is saving energy and/or avoiding greenhouse gas emissions.
“This has been very valuable in guiding which green
chemistry problems to work on,” Ager said. “We can
actually identify ones where the prospect for reducing
greenhouse gas emissions are very large and focus on
those. This also translates into prioritizing the things you
might do in your lab, and can be quite insightful.”
For chemists just starting to think about their pro-
fession in relation to sustainability, Ager suggests first
looking at ways to make their chemical processes more
efficient from a heat and energy point of view. Next, if
you can avoid waste streams, then you don’t have to deal
with the environmental remediation involved in disposal.
“These ideas will help reduce the carbon footprint of
the chemical processing activities that are essentially behind our daily lives,” Ager said.
The importance of catalysts
Catalysts are essentially the driving forces behind chemical
reactions. They are, also, the culprits behind toxic and
non-toxic waste byproducts—making them the perfect
place to start for green chemistry researchers.
Maciej Walczak, an assistant professor of chemistry
at the University of Colorado Boulder, and his team invented a green catalyst to drive reactions that facilitate
the synthesis of thiopeptides—a naturally occurring antibiotic compound—and form the essential scaffolding
needed to curtail bacterial growth.
Researchers have previously identified thiopeptides as
a promising avenue of study as they have shown some
effectiveness against MRSA and other bacterial species in
limited trials, but their structural diversity makes it difficult to synthesize the molecules at a scale large enough
for therapeutic use.
To make better use of thiopeptides, Walczack went
back to the drawing board and re-examined previous
assumptions about the foundational chemical properties
of these molecules. The research team ended up develop-
ing a catalyst that is based on molybdenum, which is an
inexpensive metal that can be used in large quantities as
it is non-toxic.
“What's interesting about the method we developed is
that it mimics the biosynthesis of thiopeptides,” Walczak
told Laboratory Equipment. “Thiopeptides are derived
from oligopeptides. So, we can take oligopeptides, we
can take the peptide chain, and then selectively introduce
molecule rings with our catalyst, something that was not
feasible with other methods. In other words, having the
approach makes this synthesis significantly easier, faster,
scalable and more practical.”
Ultimately, Walczak and his colleagues created two
new broadly representative antibiotics: micrococcin
P1 and thiocillin I. In terms of green chemistry, mo-
lybdenum is an optimum catalyst—the only waste
byproduct is water and, in this specific research, no
other mechanism performed the same way. Walczak
Overall, Walczak thinks the industry and researchers
are taking a step in the right direction when it comes to
sustainable chemistry. Still, some researchers who enter
the industry do not have a lot of training specifically tied
to green chemistry. Walczak places the burden of this ed-
ucation on the researchers’ specific university.
“The initiatives that universities create are extremely
important,” Walczak said. “Green chemistry should
be advertised as something that is really important.
Sometimes, researchers will say green chemistry is not
real science in the sense that ‘if it happens, it happens.’
But there are reasons to make it happen. There are
important challenges out there that researchers can
get excited about it. They can begin to see the impact
of their work outside of academia, particularly for industries that want to use their green methods. It really
comes down to awareness—that's the most important
Researchers are exploiting thiopeptides in the fight against
antibiotic resistance, as they have shown some effectiveness
against MRSA and certain other bacterial species in limited trials.