Archive for Sunday, October 12, 2003

A cleaner world would improve our moods

October 12, 2003


If you want to drive to work in clean clothes and a reasonably good mood, there's a price.


I'm not talking about auto emissions. I'm talking about the fact that to drive requires gasoline, to have clean clothes takes detergent and bleach and to be in a decent mood may be impossible without pharmaceutical drugs.

It takes complex chemical reactions to make these staples of our lives. And the reactions produce foul byproducts.

Big news a few weeks ago was that a Kansas University research center got $17 million from the National Science Foundation to tackle this problem.

While the number $17 million is undoubtedly important to KU and the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis, other numbers are important to all of us.

  • $10 billion, for example, is how much the U.S. chemical industry spends annually cleaning up the waste associated with making consumer basics. That's about 3 percent of sales revenue. Cleanup increases prices for everybody.
  • 30 billion is how many tons of chemical waste the companies produce a year. That's two-thirds the weight of the annual red meat production of the United States -- a lot of kaka, in other words.
  • 99 percent is how much waste the pharmaceutical industry generates relative to the amount of drug it produces, in part because of all the solvents used to make drugs.

So what's this have to do with the KU center for beneficial catalysis? Well, 90 percent of the chemical processes used to make products require catalysts. You chunk a little bit of catalyst into a vat or pressure cooker along with the chemicals that are building blocks for your product. The catalyst makes the whole thing happen. Center scientists will work to sanitize the chemical reactions and byproducts that result from catalytic processes.

Understanding a couple of center projects gives a feeling for what's involved. For instance, Daryle Busch, center deputy director, knows nylon. He talks about two of the many molecules that are used in its production. One of the two is an acid. To make the acid you have to use a solvent called acetic acid.

Now acetic acid's not the worst thing in creation, but you'd rather use less of it than more of it.

So Busch and his group have forced carbon dioxide into acetic acid under pressure to expand the volume of acetic acid. In effect, he's diluting something less environmentally friendly with carbon dioxide, which is environmentally "green."

Another example: The special interest of Bala Subramaniam, the center director, is gasoline. Twelve million a day is a number that's important to him. That's how many barrels of gasoline we produce in this country.

About a million of those are made using sulfuric or hydrofluoric acid as catalysts. Thousands of tons of liquid acid waste are left over.

Subramaniam and his team have shown that our green friend carbon dioxide, when it's in a special state somewhere between liquid and gas, can help make gasoline using solid acid catalysts. Those are kinder to the environment than liquid acids.

If engineers and scientists succeed with the "green" approach to manufacturing chemicals, some day we may drive to work in clean clothes and be more than reasonably happy.

We may be REALLY happy.

A cleaner world definitely improves your mood.

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