Greener Living Through Chemistry

December 11, 2013 | Salute to Scholars, The University

AT KINGSBOROUGH COMMUNITY COLLEGE, chemistry students are learning to synthesize biodiesel from vegetable oil found in their kitchen cupboards. Other innovative chemistry lessons include teaching student chemists to de-polymerize plastic bottles from recycling bins and how to extract the naturally occurring hydrocarbon, limonene, from an orange, instead of using a petroleum-based chemical.

The revamped lessons and curriculum are just a small part of Kingsborough Community College’s involvement in the Green Chemistry Commitment. In July, Kingsborough and 12 other colleges and universities signed up for the Green Chemistry Commitment, which is intended to increase the number of green chemists in the United States and help industries develop safer, nontoxic chemistry materials.

Peishan Chen, who goes by "KC," and professor Homar Barcena, in the lab at Kingsborough Community College.

Peishan Chen, who goes by “KC,” and professor Homar Barcena, in the lab at Kingsborough Community College.

“Our commitment is to transform the way we teach chemistry so that students practice principles of Green Chemistry,” says Kingsborough chemistry professor Homar Barcena. “Not only do they perform green labs, but they also assess how efficient these procedures are using “green metrics.”

Kingsborough chemistry students stand to gain a competitive edge in the job market by learning green chemistry principles, Barcena says. The green chemistry industry is expected to grow to more than $100 billion worldwide by 2020, according to a recent Navigant Research Report.

Along with Kingsborough, the 12 other colleges that adopted the Green Chemistry Commitment are: the University of California-Berkeley, University of Minnesota, Northeastern University, Bridgewater State University, Gordon College, Grand Valley State University, Michigan Technological University, Simmons College, South Dakota State University, St. Catherine University, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and Washington College.

Barcena says he decided to sign Kingsborough onto the educational initiative last year after meeting Amy Cannon, co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit group, Beyond Benign, which developed the Green Chemistry Commitment.

After the meeting, Barcena worked to change Kingsborough’s core chemistry curriculum, using $5,000 in funding from the Kingsborough President’s Faculty Innovation Award.

Barcena and his colleagues revised Organic Chemistry I and II courses and created a new laboratory manual, “Greener Organic Experiments,” that debuted in classrooms in Fall 2012.

In addition, new experiments in green chemistry are being developed in undergraduate research projects. Barcena says he is also applying for grants to support student research on green chemistry.

Currently, there are only about 50 students majoring in chemistry at Kingsborough. However, many students from other majors such as pharmacy, nursing and pre-med are required to take organic chemistry.

“At Kingsborough, not only does the subject matter capture students’ attention, but also prepares them to be aware of sustainability and chemical toxicity while providing them practical experiences,” Barcena says. “We are poised to build a learning community that focuses on green science.”

Peishan Chen, who goes by “KC,” and professor Homar Barcena, in the lab at Kingsborough Community College