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Interview with Rajender Varma
Professor Rajender Varma is Senior Scientist in the Sustainable Technology Division of the US Environmental Protection Agency; and a former Professor of Chemistry and visiting scientist at Palacky University in Olomouc, Czech Republic. He is also an Editorial Board Member of Springer’s open-access green chemistry journal, Sustainable Chemical Processes.
Can you tell us what inspired you to become a scientist?
A true love for chemistry, and organic chemistry in particular, was ignited by a teacher during my studies for Masters of Chemistry (MSc) program; he linked every aspect of chemistry to everyday functions in daily life.
How would you best describe the field of green chemistry?
I agree with what is simply described on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_chemistry. “The overarching goals of green chemistry—namely, more resource-efficient and inherently safer design of molecules, materials, products, and processes—can be pursued in a wide range of contexts and for various sub-disciplines of chemistry”. Although there is no consensus in the scientific community, it can be safely stated that clean chemistry, green chemistry and sustainable chemistry are essentially the same or are very similar.
As an Editorial Board Member for the Springer journal Sustainable Chemical Processes, what do you consider to have been the most important advancements in the field in recent years?
The substitution of eco-friendly solvents, the use of raw materials originating from renewable biomass resources and attempts to quantify the greenness of a chemical process (matrices) are some of the latest developments. The strength of the journals lies in addressing these topics and themes.
What have been the highlights of the journal for you so far?
The thematic issues from the leaders in their areas are especially attractive features, such as on Green and Sustainable Solvents and Catalysis applied to biomass - toward sustainable processes and chemicals.
Can you tell us about your recent research and the motivation behind it?
The most impactful contribution has been in the area of alternative energy input into chemical reactions under a variety of eco-friendly conditions, most importantly utilizing microwave (MW) irradiation. We pioneered the use of MW-assisted chemistry under solvent-free conditions or using benign solvents (water and polyethylene glycol) to assemble a wide variety of nitrogen and oxygen heterocyclic systems, multi-component reactions for combinatorial library of compounds and numerous carbon-carbon bond forming reactions. Recently, we have expanded MW methodology for the rapid synthesis of uniformly small-size nanomaterials and magnetic nanoparticles, which have found widespread application as sustainable nanocatalysts. Essentially, our research focuses on developing truly sustainable and benign approaches for synthesizing organics and nanomaterials, inspired by observing chemical processes that occur in nature. As an example, nanomaterials should be produced in the matrix in which they are to be used, thus reducing the risk of exposure and eliminating the use and generation of hazardous substances. The synthesis of nanometal/nano metal oxide/nanostructured polymers and their stabilization (through dispersants, biodegradable polymers) involving the use of natural bio-renewable resources such plant extracts (e.g. tea or coffee), vitamins, biodegradable polymers, sugars and agricultural wastes (e.g. sorghum bran, red-grape pomace, and beet juice) summarizes some of the activity.
Recently, our research has focused on an innovative strategy to recover and recycle the nanomaterials. The approach involves the use of earth-abundant iron oxide magnetic materials for the synthesis of organics. This enables a simple recovery of the nano-catalysts using an external magnet in for an array of nanomaterials; the strategy greatly simplifies the downstream processing and eliminates the use of many solvents as well as other hazardous chemicals. We have published extensively in this area and the long term goals are to contribute broad expertise in chemistry to evaluate novel and safer environmental protocols in industrial chemistry and its impact in human health and environmental sciences.
What do you see the funding situation for this research area in the upcoming years?
The overall funding for research has been decreasing over the recent years in the developed economies of the world. Translational research, as proposed in developing nations, need to emphasize incorporation of greener and sustainable aspects in every aspect of exploratory research.
What are some of the biggest challenges for green chemistry still ahead?
There are numerous barriers to green chemistry implementation. The change, in general, is always difficult, especially for mature industries where capital costs have been committed for major processes and recouping that investment is of paramount importance to the industry. Consequently, newer developments or modifications should use the existing infrastructure; retrofitting can address partially this high investment barrier.
The lack of training in the discipline, especially at the executive level that can enforce a change, is another hurdle. The educational initiatives to support green chemistry across an array of disciplines at various levels are of vital significance.
The primary motive from the commercial perspective centers on economics and, therefore, greener developments have simply to be cost-effective in delivering the superior products.
Awareness is an equally important impediment although it has been addressed today via several green chemistry networks around the globe.
Finally, evaluation matrices for defining the ‘greenness’ of a process via holistic life cycle assessment is the most important factor; the landscape is littered with numerous erroneous claims about the green products where the term is often used loosely simply for economic gains.
What are the hopes and expectations for the future?
As the climate change and other issues are becoming more vividly clear to the general public, the field should be in the limelight, and necessary support should be forthcoming for the development of greener and carbon-neutral process developments.
Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; therefore, no official endorsement should be inferred.