Green Chemistry in South Africa

Since the time when the periodic table of the chemical elements took shape, chemists have produced and characterized hundreds of thousands of different materials using different combinations of the elements to introduce new materials such as polymers, plastics, dyestuffs, and pharmaceutical products. These materials have become an important part of everyday life around the world and profitable industries have grown around their production. Much of the research and development in chemistry in producing these materials has however been carried out with little respect for the environment. The original philosophy of chemistry was born out of the industrial revolution and was augmented by the thirst for new materials during the 2nd world war in Europe. The philosophy that put profit ahead of people and planet resulted in researchers in academia and industry being focussed and obsessed with producing new target molecules at all cost with the result that large quantities of toxic waste were also produced. However, because of the introduction of new international laws and regulations, it has become increasingly expensive for the chemical industry to process the waste generated in the production of new materials. A new philosophy in chemistry is emerging whose proponents are seriously intent on tackling the assault on the environment and this is called green chemistry. Green chemistry is defined as the “invention, design and application of chemical products and processes to reduce or to eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances.” Research and teaching in the field of green chemistry in South Africa is still very poor and is lagging behind that in Europe, the USA, Japan and Australia. In 2002, the focus of the research group headed by Dr Christopher Imrie at the then University of Port Elizabeth was brought into line with Dr Imrie’s general interest in green living. Naturally, being a Doctor of Chemistry, it became green chemistry. The green chemistry project is funded by the National Research Foundation (Pretoria), Sasol and the Nelson Mandela University.