Green Chemistry: Creating molecules that don't hurt us

Today, in the hopeful theme of this week, I want to talk about the emerging field of green chemistry.


The field was created out of tragedy. Dr. John Warner was a senior researcher at the Polaroid Corporation when his two-year-old son died of a birth defect. He was left with the haunting question of whether a chemical he worked with might have caused his son's defect.

And he had an epiphany. "I am a Ph.D. chemist. I make molecules. I have never had a class in toxicology. I have never had a class in environmental mechanisms." John Warner, Founder of the Institute for Green Chemistry.

I make molecules. I have never had a class in toxicology.
— John Warner

Out of this realization, he created green chemistry, which acknowledges the harm that can come from chemicals in products, and seeks to stop that harm at the chemicals' genesis, in the laboratory. Instead of focusing on handling toxic chemicals once created, green chemistry aims to incorporate environmental safety during design and development. As part of this process, green chemistry focuses on creating benign alternatives to existing chemicals that are also more economically viable than existing options. 

This creates a substantial opportunity: according to the Institute for Green Chemistry, "only 10% of current technologies are environmentally benign." They estimate that "25% of current technologies could could be made benign relatively easily." That means that the remaining 65% require replacement - and can inspire invention.


1. Tragedy prompts chemist's switch to greener path. Globe and Mail.

2. Video: Chemist John Warner on the Power of Thinking.

3. About Green Chemistry; Executive Leadership. Warner Babcock, the Institute for Green Chemistry. and