NSF awards $500,000 to Kansas State University chemist

04/22/04

'Green' chemistry course and new catalysts to be developed

MANHATTAN, KAN. -- Christopher Levy wants to teach chemistry students to "think green" when they set out to write a formula for an industrial process or product.

The National Science Foundation is supporting development of Levy's innovative chemistry courses at Kansas State University with a five-year, $500,000 grant to the K-State assistant professor of chemistry. K-State will become one of the first universities in the nation to offer green chemistry course work.

Green chemistry refers to doing chemistry that's "environmentally as friendly as possible," Levy said, and that includes chemical processes that have fewer toxic by-products. "I want students to think about such things and realize that if chemistry is not done right, it can have a negative environmental impact," he said.

The National Science Foundation Early Career Award also supports Levy's research into developing molecules shaped like helices from inexpensive, easily obtainable starting materials. Then, he hopes to use these as catalysts to drive chemical reactions that produce an excess of molecules that are either right- or left-handed. Such handed or 'chiral' molecules can serve as critical building blocks for biologically active compounds, such as pharmaceuticals. Controlling the handedness of drug molecules is essential for them to have the desired effect, and to avoid dangerous side effects.

Levy, who holds a bachelor of education degree in addition to a doctorate in chemistry, is committed to advancing chemistry education at the university and in the community. His planned green chemistry course, when it becomes available at K-State in about two years, will be for undergraduate and graduate students in chemistry and others who meet course prerequisites.

So much of life involves chemistry and so much of chemistry is positive, Levy said -- clothing, fibers, plastics, drug manufacturing, for example. "You name a product and there was probably a chemist involved in its creation. But, many people associate chemistry only negatively, with pollution and health hazards and toxic waste."

He said there's much new thinking going on in industry to consider environmental and toxicity issues at the beginning of planning a product or process.

"The whole idea of green chemistry is that it's not enough to just look for the quickest and easiest way to get a process or reaction done," Levy said. "Instead, the environmental equation and cost of treating waste will be considered early on, and up front, in the analysis. That's becoming more and more important in industry."

Future students of chemistry will want university training in how to do chemistry that's environmentally as friendly as possible, he said.

The Environmental Protection Agency's Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 established several green chemistry focus areas: alternative synthetic pathways; alternative reaction conditions; safer chemicals that are less toxic or inherently safer with regard to their accident potential.

Some examples of the types of problems being addressed with green solutions: environmentally advanced wood preservative; an improved biofungicide; benign substitute for lead in the electro-coating process; natural insecticides; economic techniques for converting biomass to chemicals; new fire extinguishants; using microbes for certain processes.

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