Chemist leads UMass green machine

08/07/2007
By From Mass High Tech

By Dyke Hendrickson The first student to defend a doctoral thesis in the University of Massachusetts at Lowell’s green chemistry program did so in mid-January.

UMass-Lowell hosts the nation’s only doctoral program in the emerging science called green chemistry.

These two firsts second the notion that professor John Warner is making an impact in his drive to make industrial chemistry safer ߞ; and less expensive.

Warner is a professor at the university and the director of its Green Chemistry Center.

He has been resolute in attempting to convey the value of environmental values to the workplace.

“Many corporations understand that toxic materials are harmful,” said Warner, a Quincy native who is among the national leaders in the field. “What we are doing is documenting that companies can be more profitable, and safer, with green methods.

“The big corporations understand this, and many are working to make changes. The mid-size and small companies are trying to determine how such a strategy can fit into their plans.”

A key tenet of green chemistry is that the designer of a chemical is responsible for considering what will happen to the environment after the agent is in place.

Warner says this approach champions the principle that it is better not to generate waste in the first place than dispose or treat it afterward.

Today, given a choice between traditional options and green ones, business leaders choose responsibly, Warner said.

But there is a significant shortage of green alternatives, and his center is working on the challenge.

Warner began his career as a researcher with Polaroid Corp. During his tenure he learned about a federal chemical-safety program, launched by the Clinton-Gore administration, that provided “Green Chemistry Awards” to five companies a year.

When Warner learned more about the Washington-based institution, he began shaping his career so he could get involved in such science.

He left Polaroid and in the late ’90s started his Green Chemistry Center at UMass-Boston. But he says he noticed that UMass-Lowell was more committed to working with Massachusetts corporations for safer and more profitable products and last year he moved his research operation to the Lowell campus.

Warner directs a research group working on projects using principles of crystal engineering, molecular recognition and self-assembly.

“Most graduating chemists don’t have an appreciation of toxicity and environmental impact because it was never part of their training,” Warner said.

“Our school has such a course, and our feeling is that all (faculties) should look at negative environmental performance as a design failure.”

In other words, make students learn the positive and negative impacts of substances they put into the marketplace.

“A big problem in industry is the use of methalene chloride,” he said. “An alternative that is more benign and less toxic would likely save money as well as being safer.”

Warner recently received the Outstanding Service to Nursing Award from Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing and was the American Institute of Chemistry Northeast Division’s Distinguished Chemist of the Year for 2002.

His recent patents in the fields of semiconductor design, biodegradable plastics and polymeric photoresists are examples of how green chemistry principles can be incorporated into commercially relevant applications, he says.

Warner is co-author of the book “Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice” and serves on the board of directors of the Green Chemistry Institute in Washington D.C.

“When corporate executives know that green chemistry results in profits as well as acceptable public policy,” Warner said, “we will have more scientists willing to closely monitor what chemicals are used in their products.”