Berkeley’s schools of public health and chemistry join forces to impact industry sustainability

October 3, 2019

Greener Solutions students participate in a team-building exercise as co-instructors Meg Schwarzman and Tom McKeag look on. Photo by Mallory Pickett

How can the makers of Gore-Tex produce waterproof gear without toxic perfluorinated chemicals? How might an enzyme found in plants and fungi help Levi Strauss & Co. keep their brand of khakis wrinkle-free? Is it possible to make an effective sunscreen that doesn’t damage coral reefs? A novel collaboration between Berkeley Public Health and the College of Chemistry through the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry (BCGC) is leading the nation in reimagining chemistry education to reduce waste, develop safer chemicals, and achieve sustainability.

In a recent article in the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) Journal of Chemical Education, course developer Dr. Megan Schwarzman and course alum Dr. Heather Buckley detail how Berkeley’s one-of-a-kind Greener Solutions course (PBHLTH 271H) brings together graduate students in chemistry, environmental health and engineering to develop safer alternatives to hazardous chemicals and manufacturing processes.

One class project led to a partnership between USDA labs and the household cleaner company Method, ultimately contributing to product reformulations to dramatically reduce the use of hazardous surfactants that would otherwise go down the drain. Another project that started in the class went on to produce a novel reversible antimicrobial compound that dissociates in wastewater into benign, biodegradable subunits. It recently won first place in the 2018 Green Chemistry and Commerce Council Global Preservatives Challenge.

“Berkeley is just the right intellectual environment to join these disciplines in reimagining chemistry education,” says Schwarzman, associate director of BCGC, who co-founded the course eight years ago with then chemistry postdoctoral fellow Dr. Martin Mulvihill.

“The profession of chemistry is undergoing a generational transformation toward the design and use of inherently safer chemicals and materials,” says Tom McKeag, course co-instructor, BCGC executive director and author of the forthcoming book Green Chemistry in Practice: Greener Material and Chemical Innovation Through Collaboration Volume 1. “Berkeley is on the forefront of redesigning chemistry education to prepare future leaders for creative problem solving.”

Greener Solutions students visit partner organization W.L. Gore with co-instructor Dr. Billy Hart-Cooper and Gore toxicologist Dr. Barb Henry. Photo by Tom McKeag

Schwarzman, a physician scientist on the school’s faculty of Environmental Health Sciences, has spearheaded the process through her research, teaching and involvement in California’s groundbreaking chemical policies. “The principles of green chemistry are rapidly making their way into science, industry practice and public policy, and California needs scientists and experts who can provide leadership in safeguarding human health and ecosystems, while providing a cornerstone for a sustainable, clean energy economy in the state,” she says. “Businesses are eager to collaborate with Berkeley students and faculty to further these goals.”

Another case in point is when Levi Strauss & Co. sought help for maintaining a sharp crease in their wrinkle-free khakis without using the crosslinker formaldehyde: a carcinogen that is hazardous to workers in the manufacturing process. Berkeley students met the challenge—identifying a potential substitute in a fungal enzyme that can crosslink cellulose.

Now in its eighth year, the Greener Solutions course builds interdisciplinary teams of three to five graduate students from Environmental Health Sciences, Chemistry, Engineering and elsewhere across the Berkeley campus to tackle a challenge posed by a company seeking a safer way of making its products. Partner companies are generally at the leading edge of sustainability—often looking for a safer material or manufacturing process in advance of regulation.

“The Berkeley course directs the efforts of these talented young researchers toward real sustainability challenges posed by companies making everything from electronics to personal care products, building materials, furnishings, polymers and textiles,” says Buckley, who took the course as a doctoral student. She received her PhD in chemistry in 2014 and is now an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Victoria, where she teaches her own version of Greener Solutions. “It’s inspirational to watch stellar students tackling these challenges. Their technical training really is positioning them to change the world.”

Greener Solutions student teams start by identifying the core function served by a hazardous chemical and then turn to biology to look for safer substitutes. One team working with W.L. Gore—the makers of Gore-Tex—found that the surface texture of the silver ragwort leaf sheds water exceptionally well, and they suggested an electrospun fiber surface to replace the toxic perfluorinated chemical treatments typically used on outerwear. Another team looking for alternatives to the toxic isocyanates in spray polyurethane foam insulation identified chemicals that mimic the adhesive process that secures mussels to rocks in intertidal zones.

The authors of the recent ACS journal article highlight the goal of the course, which teaches students how to frame and solve problems using systems-thinking. This requires students to consider possible health and environmental impacts that could arise over the full lifecycle of a material or product, from sourcing, through manufacturing, to using and disposing or reusing. As the authors state, doing so requires deep interdisciplinary collaboration where students “learn new subject matter from each other, experience themselves as experts in their own field, and witness each other as experts in fields unfamiliar to them.”

This training equips students to tackle complex challenges in their future academic and professional work. “The course helped prepare me for a career outside the ivory tower, and it was exciting that our class projects had a real-world impact on industry,” says Dr. Justin Bours, who graduated in 2016 with a PhD in chemistry and now works for the global nonprofit Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.

This fall, Greener Solutions students are working with Nike on safer alternatives to a solvent commonly used in manufacturing synthetic leather and with a group of NGOs, academic labs and industry partners to identify safer components for 3D printing resins. Course instructors and students are always looking for the next challenge. And who knows, students might just find the right use for that fungal enzyme yet.

This story is a joint release with the College of Chemistry.