Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Kiwi green chemistry expert to return home

Professor Terry Collins.
Professor Terry Collins.

A Kiwi scientist pushing a global move toward greener chemistry is returning home to discuss his work this month.

Professor Terry Collins, the world's first green chemistry lecturer, will share his insights into advancing sustainability at the nine-day New Zealand International Science Festival, kicking off in Dunedin on Saturday, and again at Auckland Museum later in the month.

The Auckland-raised researcher is presently the director of the Institute for Green Science (IGS) at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and in 1992, became the first scientist to teach a course in green chemistry.

Professor Collins has since strived to teach new generations of scientists ways to develop chemical products and processes that are compatible with a sustainable future.

In his own research, he invented the first full-functional small molecule replicas of any of the great families of oxidizing enzymes that nature deploys to run aerobic life.

His so-called "TAML Activators" are less than one per cent the size of the enzymes they mimic and even outperform.

"Science and technology have given us unprecedented powers to shape the world to our liking," he said.

"But in the exercise of our new powers, sustainability challenges have arrived to mock our understanding of their real value and to assert that they entail no less than life-or-death sovereignty over all living things."

Speaking from Pittsburgh, Professor Collins said a present example of green chemistry, on which he and his colleagues were working, was developing a set of catalysts that made it easier to remove traces of endocrine-disrupting chemicals from water.

These chemicals stemmed from the female reproductive pill, and after withstanding wastewater treatment plant processes, they could go on to destroy the reproductive capacity of male fish in waterways.

He said this effect, which occurred in many waterways across Europe, could happen with "incredibly low quantities" of the chemicals and effectively feminised the male fish, whose testicles gradually turned into ovaries.

The changes that were needed across science to increase sustainability were not just technical, "but also very much cultural", he said.

"If we are going to give our kids and grandkids a world worth having, there are fundamental changes we are going to have to make."

Professor James Wright, of the University of Auckland's School of Chemical Sciences, said "green chemistry" was practised by many individual scientists and organisations across New Zealand.

One was crown research institute Scion, that was piloting a biorefinery that produced fuels, power, and value-added chemicals from biomass.

"But we don't have a green chemistry centre as such in New Zealand -- in fact that's one of the things we are looking to set up here at the School of Chemical Sciences," Professor Wright said.

"We are just in the process of gathering information and getting all the paperwork lined up so we can put it to our university head."

He said the concept was becoming increasingly recognised as an important part of chemistry.

"The concepts are being taken on more and more by industry, and by science in general."

*Professor Collins will give a talk at 7.30pm on Tuesday at the St David Lecture Theatre, at the University of Otago Campus, as part of the New Zealand International Science Festival. He will host another lecture at the Auckland Museum auditorium at 7pm on Monday, July 21. To book tickets, visit www.scifest.org.nz.

- NZ Herald

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