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Breno (left) conducts a green experiment with Pamela Anderson, '09.

Photo by Erika Nesbitt, '09

Faculty Focus

Discovering Supertools for Green Chemistry

by Kerry Breno
Assistant Professor of Chemistry

Have you noticed that everything in life today seems to be related to the color green? As we await the greening of nature through spring and summer, we are encouraged to use green products, have a greener lifestyle, and perhaps try to "build green." Here at Whitworth, things are no different: Food service has gone trayless, we've increased our recycling, we've made plans for a green science building, and we are working on other initiatives to green up our campus. We are seeking to be individually responsible and sustainable - but what about the collective actions of our society and our industry? Can we as individuals gifted by God to understand science and chemistry contribute to the greening of our culture? YES! Each day my students and I strive to work sideby- side in the classroom and research lab to promote, encourage and develop green chemistry. By definition, green chemistry seeks to promote awareness of sustainable practices during the discovery, manufacture and use of chemicals that are compatible with human health and the environment.

So what are we doing at Whitworth to develop green chemistry? First, students are exposed to and use green chemistry principles to evaluate products and processes in the classroom. But the use of existing technology lets us go only so far. New technologies are in high demand to meet the challenges of the future. As we develop more sustainable chemistry, we must design processes to reduce energy consumption and we must eliminate our dependence on volatile organic solvents that are toxic and highly polluting. My students and I are working to meet these needs and are pursuing fundamental research by synthesizing and testing water-soluble catalysts. We've focused on catalysts because they are like multitools: They have many useful features that encourage their use. Those features include reducing the energy needed for a chemical reaction, increasing the selectivity of a reaction, and reducing material costs due to efficient use of materials and recycling of the catalyst. If we combine these traits with watersolubility, we end up with a supertool that will greatly reduce environmental and health hazards by replacing other, more toxic or flammable solvents.

At the heart of each catalyst is a metal (chromium, molybdenum or rhenium) bound to organic molecules that direct the function of the catalyst. Making these organometallic catalysts involves special techniques, glassware and equipment to control the chemical reaction. While the work is not easy, students who work on these projects learn an amazing array of techniques and develop independent research skills. Once students have learned how to do chemistry in this airfree environment, we can use reactions modified from the scientific literature to make new catalysts. Of course, making the catalyst is only part of the battle. Students must then determine the chemical structure by using the instrumentation at Whitworth, which includes using nuclear magnetic resonance and infrared spectroscopy. Using these techniques, we can identify the compounds and catalysts and test their ability to catalyze a reaction. So far, we have made catalysts that can make polyethylene polymers (plastics) and we are working on testing catalysts that will make controlled hydrolysis reactions used in many areas of industry.

Fortunately, our discoveries don't just stay on campus; students have presented the research at the Murdock College Science Research Conference and at the Spokane Intercollegiate Research Conference. Most recently, I had the opportunity to present the synthesis, characterization and activity of the chromium-based catalysts at the National American Chemical Society meeting. Each day we work to get one step closer to finding green chemistry solutions for tomorrow, right here on campus. And along the way, I get to work with talented undergraduates who have now developed the skills to be leaders in the green revolution.

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