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Green Chemistry, Pushing the Envelope of Traditional Scholarship


Green Chemistry, Pushing the Envelope of Traditional Scholarship 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 its interdisciplinary approach was far different from her other classes at the university. “I found the community of BCBG was phenomenal and very unique on campus,” said Daniels. “And, I wanted to push that further.” She approached her mentors — Dr. Megan Schwarzman from COEH and the School of Public Health and BCGB 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 put together 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 limit the hazards of their products through their lifecycle. Their project identified chemicals that are found in components of electronic products, mostly computers and laptops, and prioritized a list of unrestricted chemicals to investigate further. They then assessed the potential threat of these chemicals to humans and the environment, among other analyses. “Illegally, outdated computers are ending up overseas in Africa, India, and China,” Daniels said, “where they are being disassembled in a very rudimentary way, mostly burned or acid bleached, to obtain precious metals.” She points out these workers are being exposed to dioxins and other organic volatile compounds as well as lead and copper while they are trying to acquire the precious metals. Meanwhile, people and livestock in the surrounding areas are also exposed as toxins are released into the environment through water and dust.

“HP and our instructors 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.” Six interdisciplinary students from UC Berkeley met remotely with HP every two weeks to scope the project and determine deliverables. Early drafts of their work were shared back and forth with their sponsor at HP, UC Berkeley alumnus Curtis Wray, MS’11, who suggested resources as the project developed.

“Marty and Meg did a great job making the experience not only a research project, but about professional skills essential to consulting such as research, report writing, and interviewing subject matter experts,” noted Daniels. “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 and by webinar to HP. “The client was so pleased they requested a follow-up presentation for offices in Europe and Asia,” reported Schwarzman. Read the report.

Address Goals

The project based approach to learning highlighted here will help build stronger ties between UC Berkeley students, the public, and potential employers. This program engaged expertise from government agencies, non-profits, and industry in an open and transparent manner. Not only are the results of the study available to the public, they are also now being presented at national ACS meetings as well as to other stakeholders in the electronics industry. By partnering with diverse stakeholders our students were able to identify the areas for research that hold the most promise for advancing more sustainable solutions in science and engineering in the interest of society.