Co-founder of green chemistry to deliver Grand Seminar of the Natural and Applied Sciences
October 25, 2017
As a student majoring in music at University of Massachusetts – Boston, John Warner, Ph.D., was trying to fulfill his general education requirements with a chemistry class.
One day when he was sitting in class, the professor invited the student sitting next to Warner to do research in his lab. Warner didn’t think he was interested in research, but he asked to tag along.
That’s when he realized how much he loved research.
“The words art and science are silly,” said Warner, who was playing in a popular band that had a recording contract at the time. “My creative expression transferred into making molecules and materials.”
That work led him to a B.S. in Chemistry and a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Princeton University—and ultimately to co-found the field of green chemistry.
He’ll speak about that journey and introduce his audience to green chemistry during the Grand Seminar of the Natural and Applied Sciences on Nov. 7, 2017, at 6:30 p.m. in Loyola University Maryland’s McGuire Hall. The event is free and tickets are not required, but registration is encouraged.
A New Approach
After Princeton, Warner landed a job as a medicinal chemist for Polaroid and developed a new way of working with molecules and materials—an approach that was so different the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) didn’t know how to regulate it. Warner traveled to Washington, D.C., to explain it to the EPA.
“Ironically, the person I met with at the EPA was the person I followed into the research lab when I was a music major,” Warner said.
Warner started looking critically at chemistry after his son, John, was born with a birth defect and died at 2. Warner found himself asking, “What if something I touched in the lab caused this?” Warner questioned why his science classes had never delved into how to create chemicals that wouldn’t harm the environment.
“I never had a class in toxicology. I never had a class in environmental mechanisms. You would assume what makes molecules dangerous would be part of what you learn at a university,” he said.
“People have been saying we’ve got to protect the ozone, we’ve got to protect the forest, but the missing component is that green chemistry is realizing this isn’t an epic battle of good and evil. It is a strange thing that happened along the way. When we created chemistry, for some reason we never put this in.”
It was then that he and Paul Anastas came up with the concept of green chemistry. They wrote a book, Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, and created the field.
Teaching the Teachers
After 10 years at Polaroid, Warner established the first Ph.D. program in green chemistry at the University of Massachusetts. His wife, Amy Cannon, was the first graduate of the program and stayed on as a professor. When they both left the university, the program didn’t survive, but today there are 50 other universities that offer the program.
Today, Warner believes nearly every university in the United States has a professor or two who are passionate about green chemistry.
“A chemist should number one learn which chemicals are dangerous,” Warner said. In 2007 he founded the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, a research organization that develops green chemistry technologies. Today he is president and chief technology officer. With Cannon, Warner also started Beyond Benign, a non-profit dedicated to sustainability and green chemistry education.
“Instead of preaching to the world, we want to demonstrate that you can have your cake and eat it, too,” Warner said. Chemists just need to be trained how to create safe chemicals.
“I would argue that the crisis of sustainability is a crisis of invention. Do we train chemists to invent solutions for society, or do we create chemists to publish papers and journals?”
Spreading the Word
Since co-founding the field of green chemistry, Warner has received the 2014 Perkin Medal, widely acknowledged as the highest honor in American Industrial Chemistry, and was named a 2016 AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassador. He has traveled to 45 countries to meet leaders and introduce them to the field, and his book has been translated into 15 languages. China alone has established 15 national research institutes in green chemistry.
“Nothing about green chemistry is earth shattering. You hear about it, and you think ‘That makes sense.’ It’s one of those things that once it’s stated, you think it’s so obvious,” Warner said. “Anyone could have written this book, and we just happened to be the ones who did.”