Green Chemistry, Pushing the Envelope of Traditional Scholarship

Photo: Sarah DanielsSarah Daniels

Sarah Daniels’ first course with The Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry (BCGC) was a “game changer” for her and her professors. “I was blown away” were her words. Daniels, a PhD student in the Environmental Health Sciences Program in the School of Public Health, thought the interdisciplinary approach of the introductory course was far different from her other classes at the university.

“I found the community of BCGC was phenomenal and unique on campus,” said Daniels. “And, I wanted to push that further.”

She approached her instructors — Dr. Megan Schwarzman from COEH and the School of Public Health and BCGC Executive Director Marty Mulvihill from the College of Chemistry — with an idea for a graduate seminar where students would act as consultants and partner with an outside organization to advance green chemistry solutions. Daniels worked with them on a proposal and “before you know it, Marty and Meg had developed a course curriculum, Greener Solutions, for Fall ’12.”

The inaugural class partnered with HP to investigate key sources of hazard posed by their products at the end of their lifecycle, when they become electronic waste. Their project identified chemicals that are found in e-waste, mostly computers and laptops, and prioritized a list of chemicals to investigate further. They then assessed the potential threat of these chemicals to humans and the environment.

“Outdated computers are ending up overseas in Africa, India, and China illegally,” Daniels said, “where they are being disassembled in a very rudimentary way, mostly subjected to burning or acid leaching, to obtain precious metals and materials for re-sale.”

She points out these workers are being exposed to dioxins, PCBs, and organic volatile compounds as well as heavy metals while they are trying to recover the valuable components of the e-waste. Meanwhile, people in the surrounding areas are also exposed to the toxic materials as they enter the environment via air, dust, and contamination of food and water supplies.

“HP helped us to design a research question that we could answer in the time we had allotted — a question that might also help them determine which chemicals they should consider replacing or reducing in their products, or a new way to design a computer so that it could be modularly dismantled to access the computer’s precious metals without releasing contaminants into the environment.”

An interdisciplinary group of six UC Berkeley students met for class sessions twice a week, working with Schwarzman and Mulvihill to scope the research project and determine deliverables. “While the students focused on the research question, we guided them through the inquiry process, teaching them skills they should be able to draw on in the future,” said Schwarzman. “Best of all was getting to spend several classes on writing skills—something that’s often only addressed peripherally in the sciences.”

“Marty and Meg did a great job to make this experience focused on building professional skills that are essential to consulting, such as conducting research thorough literature searches and finding creative ways to communicate and present new information, ” noted Daniels.

The group consulted remotely with HP every two weeks, discussing early drafts of their work with their contact at HP, UC Berkeley alumnus Curtis Wray, MS’11, who suggested resources as the project developed.

“I enjoyed working with the students," said Wray, a materials chemist with the Global Environmental Materials Team at HP. "Our collaboration with the University of California, Berkeley, made an important contribution to our materials program at HP. The students had diverse areas of expertise, which was crucial to tackling the problems we gave them. They were wonderful to work with — enthusiastic and professional."

The project concluded with a 75 page report, “Identifying substances of concern during informal recycling of electronics,” which the students presented on campus, by webinar to HP, and at a poster session for an organization of businesses and NGOs. Although the semester is over, the students are preparing their report for publication and have been asked to present to HP’s global offices.

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