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CBC Labs Put the "Tree" in Chemistry

Courtesy of a 2013 grant from the UA Green Fund, Chemistry lab courses are safer and greener for undergraduates. Below is the full story by Sarah Vining pubished in the Arizona Daily Wildcat. Photo credit: Nick Smallwood

Undergraduate labs put the "tree" in chemistry


2013 grant has made UA chemistry labs safer and greener




Beneath bright fluorescent lights, beakers clatter and sweat drips. A student hesitates before stepping over a line of yellow duct tape on the floor. Before doing so, he or she goes through a list of required items: lab coat, goggles, gloves and close-toed shoes. Check, check, check and check, the student verifies with a sigh of relief. Missing any of these items could lead to dismissal from the lab.

Organic chemistry labs are high stakes because the experiments are ridden with toxic and hazardous chemicals.

“It’s not like we try to do everything with toxic chemicals,” said Dr. Hamish Christie, a lecturer and organic lab coordinator in the department of chemistry and biochemistry. These toxic chemicals may sometimes be avoided with alternatives.

For many majors at the UA, chemistry labs are required coursework. According to the UA Green Fund, nearly 2,500 students cycle through general chemistry labs and 1,000 students take part in organic chemistry labs each semester. Such high numbers of students create liability issues by producing large amounts of hazardous waste products at the end of each lab.

In 2013, Christie consulted the UA Green Fund in an effort to receive a grant that supports greener chemistry lab. He proposed limiting the use of toxic metals, recycling byproducts and reducing the amount of chemicals used in the first place.

Science is progressive

“As chemists, we’re always interested in trying to do a better job,” Christie said. He and his colleagues realized that by revamping their experiments, the chemistry department could reduce the UA’s carbon footprint and make the department more attractive to students and parents.

“It’s our responsibility to provide an educational experience that’s safe,” said Mark Yanagihashi, the instructional lab manager and prep-room manager for the university’s chemistry labs. Yanagihashi and Christie both believe integrating greener experiments will have positive impacts.

Each experiment begins with a pre-lab lecture by a teaching assistant. The TA lectures the students on the experiment itself, but also explains the broader significance of what they are doing. Some key points include going over the procedure, safety precautions and requirements for the lab report. For green experiments, the TAs may tweak their lectures to inform the students on how they are dialing back their waste.

“As a [TA], it is our duty to relate chemistry to things that we see in everyday life,” said Edon Vitaku, UA chemistry graduate student.

Vitaku is currently an active TA for the organic chemistry labs. Vitaku worked with Christie to make green experiments a reality. Both believe that green chemistry is an effective way to represent the positive side of the bad media that “mad science” has gotten in the past. The first step came when Vitaku and Christie both noticed Yanagihashi scaling back some of the first and second semester general chemistry labs.

Safe and cheap: Chemistry labs begin to have green explosions

In the general chemistry labs, Yanagihashi realized it was time to stop using beakers and replace them with smaller vials.

“Each student generates waste from his or her products, and waste can accumulate over time,” Yanagihashi said. “Students can find trends in their data when they use less liquid during an experiment because the smaller measurements leads to finer precision in the process.” In the meantime, the department has found a creative way to cut back students’ overall end waste.

“We reduced our waste by more than 90 percent,” said Dr. Anne Padias, director of academic services for the chemistry department. Using fewer materials in lab saves the department money. So far, the organic chemistry labs alone have managed to save up to 17 percent of the cost of maintaining the labs, according to Padias.

In the past, students threw out a cleaning material, acetone, after washing lab materials. With these grants, chemists have put recyclers into the organic chemistry labs to reuse the liquid instead of incinerating it.

Even experiments that are not entirely green can cut some waste by scaling down the amount of solvent. Not all experiments will be able to eliminate the use of toxic materials, but less waste means the university has to pay less during disposal.

“[Students put] a little more thought into what they’re doing,” Yanagihashi said. “When students use less material, they become more aware of their precious resource.”

Sometimes, TAs will ask the students to form groups to share the material. “The feedback was really positive,” Vitaku said.

Going green is also making the labs safer for students.

“I think safety and greenness go together,” Yanagihashi said. His general chemistry labs were some of the first to cut out chromium and mercury, two chemicals known to cause cancer.

Upon seeing the success in the Yanagihashi labs, Christie started considering ways to cut these materials out of his organic chemistry labs. He proposed replacing chromium reactants with bleach to the Green Fund in his grant application. Bleach is a much safer material that students can flush down sinks. “Because everything is safer to handle, it’s usually easier to do,” he said.

The labs are separated into sections for majors and non-majors. After he tested the experiment on the smaller group of students in the major’s lab first to check if it would run smoothly, Christie was able to move the experiment onto the lab benches of second semester general organic chemistry students. Using a less-corrosive material like bleach is not only safer, but it also gives students the hands-on experience of applying household objects to their experiments.

“We’ve tried to relate it to something [students] most likely have at home,” Vitaku said.

Chemistry could spark fire for sustainability in students

Changing the labs puts sustainability in the curriculum. Sustainable experiments remind students that chemistry has had a historically toxic relationship with the environment, one that they should seek to avoid in their future careers. When students use less material, they become more invested in getting it right the first time.

“Hopefully it will open their eyes,” Padias said. She believes Christie and Yanagihashi are both taking baby steps in the right direction.

“We’re really just starting,” Christie said. “The important thing is we’re making a move in the right direction. It’s not going to change overnight.”

“We need to initiate the spark,” he said.

Vitaku hopes that at the end of the day, students will walk home having learned how to cut back on their scientific experiments.

Students may have to worry about remembering their goggles and proper pipetting techniques. The stakes in the chemistry labs are still high, but the anxiety is not as it used to be. These days, the only explosions that happen in chemistry labs are the push to go green.

Undergraduate labs put the "tree" in chemistryWednesday, January 20, 2016Home