Green chemistry delivers sustainable solutions
For some, the shell of a shrimp is waste. For Robin Rogers, it’s an opportunity in the form of a natural polymer that can be used to create the type of material that is currently made from oil or petroleum-based chemicals. And exploring the application of shrimp shells and other bio-renewables is his objective as Canada Excellence Research Chair in Green Chemistry and Green Chemicals at McGill University: to design and implement processes and products that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances.
“In Alabama, the shrimping industry is paying $100,000 a month to throw shrimp shells into the landfill,” says Dr. Rogers, who arrived from the southern U.S. state in Montreal this January. “We have developed a process that can extract chitin, a high-value polymer, that can replace materials used in plastics.”
Since the fishing industry doesn’t have the resources for this kind of research, Dr. Rogers believes the university can help to develop the extraction process and scale it up – and then develop a range of products made of chitin. His idea that the shell could be of equal – if not greater – value as the meat may be greeted by disbelief from fishermen, but he believes green chemistry has the power to create new business opportunities. He is currently gathering support for a startup company that will translate this research into an enterprise.
In order to promote “transformational thinking,” Dr. Rogers wants to work not only with the fishing industry, but the forestry sector and other Canadian industries to “get them to embrace the processes and products that allow them to be the industries of the future.
“I want to leverage McGill’s intellectual capital and partner with industry to develop innovative sustainable technologies,” he says, “and also create the markets for them.”
Dr. Rogers’s inspiration to help new technologies gain a foothold in the economy comes from George Washington Carver, an American botanist and inventor, who stepped in when Alabama went through a time of great upheaval as cotton, the state’s main agricultural crop, was attacked by the boll weevil in the early 20th century.
“George Washington Carver had a laboratory at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which I understand was an interface between the university and society,” says Dr. Rogers. “When the economy was failing, he worked with the farmers to develop alternative crops. This was a huge conversion from a cotton-based agriculture to growing peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes. And it wouldn’t have worked if he hadn’t developed new products to increase the market.”
Dr. Rogers sees similarities in “what is going on today, for instance in the chemical industry with its focus on petroleum and plastics, and all the worry about sustainability,” he says. “It could be that global climate change is our boll weevil that’s forcing us to adapt and become resilient.”
Yet it’s not surprising that businesses just continue doing what they do since “making a radical change can mean risking jobs and the company,” he explains. Sustainability goes beyond the environment and biodiversity, social justice and economic equality, says Dr. Rogers. “If there is no economic base, there is no sustainability.”
The answer lies in partnerships between academia, industry and government, says Dr. Rogers, who has found enthusiastic support for this view at McGill. He believes a university has to inform, educate and work with society to further the understanding of the issues we are facing.
“Canada has all the resources that the world is going to want in the future. We just have to make sure they are used wisely,” he says. Focusing on the ability to make products directly from natural resources and developing new processes and products for sustainable practices, Dr. Rogers and his team are making great strides in this direction.
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