Water – The Solvent Future

Why should we go back to using water as a solvent? Water-based chemistry has simple operations, high synthetic efficiency, safety benefits, low-cost reactions, and a high potential to generate new synthetic methodologies that can that can be patented to protect your product.

Many of us “device” professionals are called upon to cross borders now and again.  It could have been a drug eluting XXX, a bio-absorbable YYY or a device delivering compound ZZZ.  Some of these devices are a regulatory nightmare and most require multidisciplinary teams.  Despite all the potential headaches these medical tools bring to business they have almost become the “norm” over the last decade.

Personally speaking, I have not worked on a product requiring only a single regulatory pathway since about 1999. With this in mind, I do not have any reservations bringing to you the subject of “chemistry.”

In the beginning, industrial chemistry was 100 percent water-based and used primarily for food production (fertilizers), dyes and weapons (poisons or gun powder). In the late 19th century, fermentation began to be used for more than just recreational drinking habits. Someone got the bright idea to start substituting alcohol for water to extract substances in their experiments, which helped create better fertilizers and weapons (dynamite). The early 20th century saw the rise of “modern chemistry” and chemical synthesis began. The large issue with synthesized chemicals is the unexpected side effects (e.g.: DDT).

Water-based chemistry is making a slow comeback (in the USA, the US Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 and The Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 and the California Green Chemistry Initiative in 2008; in the Europe, regulation 1907/2006 Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) program) as a subset of “Green Chemistry.” The 12 Principles of Green Chemistry help lead companies in the direction of cleaner processes and higher profits. Taking it a step further and pulling from the influence of Biomimicry directs us to utilizing water as our main solvent.

The US Environmental Protection Agency states (USEPA, 2012):
“Green chemistry, also known as sustainable chemistry, is the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances. Green chemistry applies across the life cycle of a chemical product, including its design, manufacture, and use. Green chemistry technologies provide a number of benefits, including:
  • reduced waste, eliminating costly end-of-the-pipe treatments
  • safer products
  • reduced use of energy and resources
  • improved competitiveness of chemical manufacturers and their customers.”
Although Green Chemistry is a large and deep subject, the premise can be readily understood. Paul Anastas and John C. Warner developed 12 principles that focus on the following concepts:
  • Designing processes to maximize the amount of raw material that ends up in the product;
  • Using safe, environment-benign substances, including solvents, whenever possible;
  • Designing energy efficient processes; and
  • Implementing the best form of waste disposal: not to create it in the first place. 
The 12 Principles of Green Chemistry, in an abbreviated form, are:
  1. Prevent waste; 
  2. Design safer chemicals and products; 
  3. Design less hazardous chemical synthesis; 
  4. Use renewable feedstocks; 
  5. Use catalysts, not stoichiometric reagents; 
  6. Avoid chemical derivatives; 
  7. Maximize atom economy; 
  8. Use safe solvents and reactions; 
  9. Increase energy efficiency; 
  10. Design chemicals and products to degrade after use; 
  11. Analyze in real time to prevent pollution; 
  12. Minimize for the potential for accidents. 
Utilizing Biomimcry and the Life’s Principles we include Use Life-Friendly Chemistry and Do Chemistry in Water. This gives us the new (old?) playing field of water-based chemistry.

Why should we go back to using water as a solvent?  Water-based chemistry, generally speaking, has simple operations, high synthetic efficiency (energy & reaction times), safety benefits (in the lab, waste streams, end products), the reactions are low in cost and there is a high potential to generate new synthetic methodologies that can that can be patented to protect your product.

Here are two excellent examples of nature’s water-based chemistry:
1) Who makes the toughest ceramic in the world?  It self assembles, can be synthesized at low temperatures (~50°F or less), and uses easily obtainable constituents. You may have guessed this one right off the bat – the red abalone (Haliotis rufescens) shell made mostly of CaCO3. (Biomimicry 3.8 Institute, 2012)
2) This one is a bit harder:  what creature makes a skin that is extremely lubricious, more abrasion resistant than steel and is made primarily from a form of sugar? The North African sandfish skink (Scincus scincus). (Biomimicry 3.8 Institute, 2011)
Here are two examples of green/water based chemistry in industry:
3) If Pfizer made the move to updated and greener technologies, they could make an additional $200 million dollars per year JUST in reduced waste fees. (Berkeley W. Cue, 205)
4) Merck spent $34 million dollars to remove methylene chloride from their Primaxin manufacturing line for an annual cost saving of $14 Million (2.4 year return on investment). (Berkeley W. Cue, 205)
Most of us are in business to make money. Does it not make sense to spend a little more time on developing a process that:
  • Gets you out of storing and handling hazardous waste (reduces overhead by utilizing less square footage and potentially reduced insurance costs, increased employees safety);
  • Reduces or eliminates hazardous waste removal (reducing cost of disposal);
  • Has easy, fast, and low cost reactions (all add to the bottom line);
  • Allows you to tout the “greenness” of your company (marketing!*); and
  • Is potentially safer for the doctor and the patient (after all, isn’t this REALLY the bottom line in our industry?)
The solvent of the future can also help our businesses become more solvent.
* 80 percent of consumers say that corporate support of causes win their trust, 79 percent of consumers will switch products they buy to help support a cause (88 percent for those between the ages of 18 and 24), 92 percent hold a more positive image if a company supports a cause they care about. (Cone, Inc, 2008) (Cone, Inc., 2007) (Cone, Inc., 2004)
  1. Allen, A. J. (August, 2004). Green Chemistry: Dense Carbon Dioxide and Water as Environmentally Benign Reaction Media. Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  2. Berkeley W. Cue, J. P. (205, June 9th). The Business Case for Green Chemistry. TURI, U Mass Lowell, 2005, Massachusetts, USA.
  3. Biomimicry 3.8 Institute. (2011, October 112th). Skink exhibits low friction: sandfish skink. Retrieved from AskNature.org: http://www.asknature.org/strategy/58c6d3ddcdbda46e2815a24277df9f9b
  4. Biomimicry 3.8 Institute. (2012, June 27th). Shells are tough: red abalone. Retrieved from AskNature.org: http://www.asknature.org/strategy/1bc69752671838d19b28981d5b5483f6
  5. Chan, C.-J. L.-H. (2007). Comprehensive Organic Reactions in Aqueous Media, Second Edition. Hoboken NJ: Wiley-Interscience.
  6. Cone, Inc. (2008). Past. resent. Future. The 25th Anniversary of Cause Marketing:. Retrieved from www.coneinc.com/stuff/contentmgr/files/0/8ac1ce2f758c08eb226580a3b67d5617/files/cone25thcause.pdf. 
  7. Cone, Inc. (2004). 2004 Corporate Citizenship Study.
  8. Cone, Inc. (2007). Cone Cause Evolution and Environmental Survey. Retrieved from www.coneinc.com/files/2007ConeSurveyReport.pdf.
  9. Control, C. D. (2010). Green Chemistry. Retrieved from Department of Toxic Substances Control: http://dtsc.ca.gov/PollutionPrevention/GreenChemistryInitiative/index.cfm?CFID=23714839&CFTOKEN=69905859
  10. Crow, J. M. (September 2008). Solvent from the sky. Chemisrty World, 62-65.
  11. Exchange, G. C. (n.d.). Retrieved from Green Chemistry Reource Exchange: http://www.greenchemex.org/gcex/
  12. Robet People, P. (2008). The Role of Green Chemistry in our Future. ACS Green Chemistry Institute.
  13. Savage, N. A. (2002). Roles of Water for Chemical Reactions in High Temperature Water. Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109-2136: Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Michigan.
  14. Schapiro, M. (2007). Exposed – The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing.
  15. Tracking Toxic Chemicals: The Value of Materials Accounting Data. (1997). INFORM.
  16. USEPA. (2012, June 18th). Green Chemistry. Retrieved from Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov/greenchemistry/