Green Chemistry Principle #5

Safer Solvents and Auxiliaries

The use of auxiliary substances (e.g., solvents, separation agents, etc.) should be made unnecessary wherever possible and, innocuous when used.

Dr. Concepcíon (Conchita) Jiménez-González, Director, Operational Sustainability, GlaxoSmithKline

It was a green chemistry conference and the very famous synthetic chemist had just received a question about why he had chosen a solvent that was without question a very poor choice. You have to be realistic, chemists know intuitively what's best, and solvents don't matter. It's the chemistry that counts. I've heard this kind of remark repeatedly over many years, despite the fact that it goes against the spirit and letter of Principle 5.

Solvents and mass separation agents of all kinds matter a lot to the chemistry not to mention the chemical process and the overall "greenness" of the reaction. In many cases, reactions wouldn't proceed without solvents and/or mass separation agents. To say that they don't matter, or that it's only the chemistry that counts is not just a logical fallacy, it's chemically incorrect. Solvents and separation agents provide for mass and energy transfer and without this, many reactions will not proceed.

It has also been shown that solvents account for 50 – 80 percent of the mass in a standard batch chemical operation, depending on whether you include water or you don't. Moreover, solvents account for about 75% of the cumulative life cycle environmental impacts of a standard batch chemical operation.

Solvents and mass separation agents also drive most of the energy consumption in a process. Think about it for a moment. Solvents are alternately heated, distilled, cooled, pumped, mixed, distilled under vacuum, filtered, etc. And that's before they may or may not be recycled. If they're not recycled, they are often incinerated.

Solvents are also the major contributors to the overall toxicity profile and because of that, compose the majority of the materials of concern associated with a process. On average, they contribute the greatest concern for process safety issues because they are flammable and volatile, or under the right conditions, explosive. They also generally drive workers to don personal protective equipment of one kind or another.

We will always need solvents, and with many things in chemical processes, it's a matter of impact trading. Optimize a solvent according to one green metric and many times, there are three others that don't look so good. The object is to choose solvents that make sense chemically, reduce the energy requirements, have the least toxicity, have the fewest life cycle environmental impacts and don't have major safety impacts.

Solvents and separation agents do matter and despite one or more famous synthetic organic chemists may think. It is possible to make better choices, and that is what application of this principle should promote.

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