July 25, 2002

No more fuming at chemistry class

  • Uof O builds chem labs that generate minimal hazardous waste
    Special to the Journal

    green chemistry classroom
    Photo courtesy of the University of Oregon
    The University of Oregon’s green chemistry program features a lab without fume hoods. Students learn by mixing innocuous compounds, greatly reducing pollution and the cost of the lab.

    Frazier Nyasulu can’t foresee the day when just a few fume hoods line the organic chemistry laboratory stations at the University of Washington.

    The steel-and-glass chambers let students tinker safely with the kinds of volatile compounds many of them will likely encounter in the workplace after graduation. Cut back dramatically on the amount of work students do under fume hoods, Nyasulu said, and organic chemistry simply wouldn’t be the same.

    “In certain cases, there’s no way to work around fume hoods,” said Nyasulu, a professor and director of undergraduate services in UW’s chemistry department. “Certain kinds of chemistry require it.”

    For reasons other than just academic innovation, a growing cadre of chemists led by two organic chemistry professors at the University of Oregon believe otherwise.

    The University of Oregon has opened a lab where students will learn organic chemistry by mixing innocuous compounds that professors Ken Doxsee and Jim Hutchison say serve the same educational purpose as their volatile counterparts.

    The lab comes four years after Doxsee and Hutchison launched a “green” agenda to let students learn the basics of chemistry in safer, cheaper labs that generate minimal hazardous waste and release less toxic vapors into the environment.

    The university’s 18 fume hoods in 1997 were too few to satisfy growing enrollment, Hutchison said. So, spurred by a desire to create a curriculum that would cut costs and protect the environment, he and Doxsee developed a lab that can handle three times as many students as the old one for about a third of the cost. There’s also evidence the $1 million facility generates a fraction of the waste.

    The day hasn’t arrived yet, but Hutchison said he believes fume hoods may eventually become a remnant of the past — in the University of Oregon organic labs, at least.

    “The university wasn’t interested in spending millions and millions of dollars on a new lab with more fume hoods,” he said of the contraptions, which cost up to $20,000 each.

    “If it’s been on someone’s wish-list to have a lab with more fume hoods, going with our curriculum instead could accommodate more students and save money.”

    In a nutshell, in Oregon’s green chemistry program (there’s already a lab manual, and textbooks are on the way), students learn the basics with benign chemicals.

    Leading “bench-top” experiments like those in the days before fume hoods, Doxsee and Hutchison are replacing harmful compounds such as bromine with safer ones like hydrogen peroxide.

    “Students also know how to handle hazardous compounds,” Doxsee said. “We’re teaching them to think about the alternatives.”

    The program has caught the attention of chemistry professors across the country, some of whom are stowing safe experiment ideas away for a green chemistry Web site.

    But Ron Newton, instructional lab supervisor in Washington State University’s chemistry department, said WSU is doing the opposite.

    In addition to more fume hoods, Newton said, WSU hopes to also equip its organic labs with steel, glass and rubber “glove boxes.” Stationed inside wider, deeper fume hoods, the glove boxes, up to $75,000 each, would let students handle chemicals so volatile they ignite upon touching air.

    Only such experiments, he said, can prepare chemistry students for dangerous jobs in industry.

    “We haven’t even heard of (green chemistry) out this way. I don’t think we’d even be interested in it. Yes, it may save money, but you’re not doing any favors for students with it,” Newton said.

    “We’re trying to get students really interested in chemistry. This gives them a chance to perform processes that will really train them for when they go out into the world.”

    Doxsee disagrees. “Industry,” he said, “has been heading in this direction for decades.”

    “This is economics for them,” Doxsee said. “Academia is a step behind. Waste is expensive.”

    Whether UW’s chemistry program is green by Oregon’s standards or not, the university is taking steps to minimize waste. “Every chemist thinks about that,” said lab tech manager Tracy Yurien.

    “We use no more than we have to. We try to generate results without using more than we need.”

    Moreover, as often as possible, Nyasulu said, professors assign experiments using chemicals students can dilute with water and dump down the drain. Also, he said, “if a (non-hazardous) substitute can teach the same thing, we’ll certainly go for that.”

    But Nyasulu doubts UW will strive for a program as green as Oregon’s.

    “I can’t imagine organic without fume hoods,” he said. “I think we’re somewhere in the middle.”

    Hutchison sees organic differently.

    At least, at the University of Oregon.

    “Materials are exhaled into the atmosphere. The stuff evaporates, but it still goes into the air and water,” Hutchison said. “Fume hoods probably won’t be history, but that would be cool. It’s a great goal.”

    Ari Kramer is a Seattle-based freelance writer.

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