Aug 4, 2010

Chemist: Heal Thyself

Our speaker today packed a wallop! In the 80’s he was that ordinary UMass Boston kid, a music major with his own band -- undoubtedly playing late nights at Bunratty’s and the Rat, with the beer-soaked sneakers to prove it. Today, he’s considered the father of Green Chemistry. No ordinary nerd, Dr John Warner is friends with presidents, prime ministers and corporate heads around the world. Although he’s been tapped by Swarzenegger to help California escape this toxic chemical world we’ve created, he told our Sustainability Forum today: “Massachusetts has the clear opportunity to emerge as the Silicon Valley of Sustainability.”

John stated that the most prominent chemist at the most prominent institution could not identify a safe molecule vs a toxic one. Our chemists are woefully unprepared to create safer, healthier materials. It’s not some corporate conspiracy or even a political bias. It’s simply an embedded institutional approach to creating complex materials that neglects a fundamental emphasis on toxicity. Advancements in complex polymers are astounding; they create new fuels, more efficient building materials and longer-lasting nail polishes. Chemists construct safeguards, and keep pace with a continual mountain of laws and policies. But Green Chemistry, surprisingly, is just emerging.

China and India get it. Their chemistry students are required to take a year of toxicology. Our kids are smart. But there is not a single undergrad in the US who is expected to understand this critical part of nanotechnology.

John will tell you that his text books at UMass aren’t much different than 30 years later. It’s a sad indictment of government, research and academia. There’s good news though: John…through his books, the WarnerBabcock Institute, his membership on the American Chemical Society, his patents, his consultations with world leaders…is changing chemistry.

He’s just a regular guy who is having a profound impact on the molecules that surround is. It’s an amazing story: from the Kenmore Square Rathskellar to laboratories worldwide.

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