When True Innovation Begins

10 Questions with...

Amy Cannon, green chemist and non-profit director, answers our 10 questions, discussing low-energy solar cells, training scientists to weed out toxicity, and what makes benign chemistry such a good business proposition.


Amy S. Cannon



Job title:

Executive Director


Beyond Benign, Wilmington, MA

[1] How do you explain your job at cocktail parties?

I run Beyond Benign, a non-profit dedicated to education, curriculum, and training in green chemistry, which is often described as pollution prevention at the molecular level. Green chemistry aims to prevent pollutants from being formed in the first place by teaching the designers of materials and products how to make stuff—such as medicines and computer parts—from non-hazardous chemical building blocks, which are often derived from renewable resources and through energy-efficient processes. At the non-profit, we develop curriculum, activities, and laboratory exercises for K-12 educators to use in the classroom. We also visit K-12 classrooms and participate in community events to talk about green chemistry’s role in solving global environmental problems.

[2] In the past six months, what has been the most exciting advance or breakthrough you’ve had in the lab?

At our partner organization, the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, there are many ongoing projects revolutionizing both how chemistry is done and how products are designed. One project particularly close to my heart builds upon some graduate work that I did years ago: Solar energy devices today are generally made using highly hazardous materials, and their manufacture uses large amounts of energy. Researchers at the WBI are now designing solar energy devices that can be made entirely at room temperature with benign materials. Energy costs are considerably lower, and because the new process doesn’t have the hazards associated with current state-of-the-art technology, hazard-related costs are lower too. Overall, it’s a win-win for health, the environment, and the economy.

[3] Complete this sentence: We could make huge strides in the field, if we could just figure out…

...how to predict the toxicity and hazard of a molecule or material before we introduce it and its byproducts to the world. Throughout the history of chemical education, most chemists have never taken courses in toxicology. That’s right—professional chemists who work with these chemicals daily do not learn about their potential dangers or mechanisms of harm. Green chemistry is transforming this by incorporating toxicology into the education of a research scientist. Yet we still face the huge challenge of learning how to predict the toxicity of a potential chemical product. How can we use the tools of toxicology as design indicators to help scientists develop molecules and materials that are benign in the first place? There is much work going on in this area, which bodes well for some excellent predictive tools.

[4] What’s the biggest misconception about your field?

When one hears the word “green,” many connotations come to mind. Unfortunately, one is: “It’ll cost more and it won’t work as well.” But green chemistry technology must meet three criteria to be successful in the marketplace: environmental benefit, cost competitiveness, and product performance. This makes green chemistry a challenge—however, it also ensures that in the long run, our solutions will be adopted. The cost of using hazardous materials is high: There are costs of the transport, use and handling, and disposal of these materials, as well as costs associated with worker health and safety, and liability. So by using and producing a safer chemical or material, a company can cut expenses in all of these areas.

[5] Scientist you’d most like to meet?

Scientist: Rachel Carson. Her story—as scientist, writer, and environmental pioneer—amazes me; it is heartening and inspiring to realize the impact just one woman can have.

Person: Leonardo DiCaprio. Besides being an incredible actor, Leonardo is well known for his passion for the environment and for the creation of a foundation dedicated to environmental issues. What a great way to use the resources and the status that he has earned to give back to our planet. I would love the chance to meet him and teach him how green chemistry can be a solution to many of these problems.

[6] What are you reading now?

Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry by Elizabeth Grossman. I began reading this because Lizzy interviewed our group while she was researching this book (while I was a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts Lowell). I’m really enjoying it—she has an incredible ability to translate what we do as green chemists into language that anyone can easily understand. I am finding that this book is a good way to introduce the topic to my family members, friends, and the general public.

[7] When I was a child, I wanted to be…

A scientist who would help save the world. I became consumed with environmental issues when in 8th grade we had to design a booth and gather information for an Earth Day fair. My topic was ozone depletion. And from that day on, I was hooked. I remember preaching to my friends and family about their energy or water use…to my surprise, not everyone was as passionate about the environment as I was. It wasn’t until graduate school that I found how I would go about “saving the world.” Green chemistry empowered me because I no longer had to rely on telling people what not to do (don’t use this product, it depletes the ozone layer; don’t drive, it contributes to global warming, etc.); I could help create solutions to the environmental problems that we were—and are—facing. I started to think about science as the solution and not the problem. This was such an empowering message for me, one that I hope for all children to learn at an early age.

[8] What advice would you give someone just starting out in your field?

Settle for nothing less than excellent science. A green chemistry solution that you design must work, and it must work well. This will require that you be at the top of your game and that you excel in your field.

Look outside of your discipline. Green chemistry solutions many times are found when a scientist digs into an area he or she is not familiar with and begins to ask questions. Often we get stuck in our own areas of expertise and miss so much of what is happening around us. Step outside of your area, get uncomfortable, and begin to ask questions—this is how you will find answers. Investigate nature, work with an engineer, walk down the hall and talk to a process chemist, a biologist, or a polymer scientist—all of these things will help you in your research, and many times this when true innovation begins.

Don’t be afraid to challenge other scientists who are not using or looking for safer alternatives to the more hazardous traditional chemistries. They will challenge you on your chemistry knowledge, so don’t be shy about questioning them on their methods and choices. The truth is that once they see your success, they will begin to change their habits and they will probably even begin to consult you for advice. This is exactly what has happened to me in the past.

[9] If the NSF surprised you with a $2 million grant tomorrow, what would you spend it on?

We would work on extending our green chemistry curriculum to include the elementary level. If we don’t get kids excited and interested in science before they reach the 8th grade, studies show they will most likely not study science in college. This has lead to a decline in students entering the sciences here in the United States. Elementary level curriculum would also allow for a deeper appreciation of science and sustainability for all students; although not every student will grow up to be a scientist, a greater understanding of these fundamental principles will help to ensure we have more informed citizens and voters.

[10] Why do you do science? What inspires you?

The ability to change the options that we have on store shelves and in the marketplace today. As I said before, what frustrated me the most in the past was the feeling that I could not control other people’s behavior; I couldn’t make anyone drive less, or turn the lights off when they left the room, or take shorter showers. But, with green chemistry, I have the power to make a safer material or a safer product. I can invent a new hair dye that is not lead-based. I can create a new nail polish that is water-based and doesn’t rely on carcinogenic ingredients. I can design a new solar energy device that is cost effective, energy efficient and non-hazardous in its manufacturing process. This is what inspires me. And I want to bring this message to students across the US and worldwide, telling them that we need them to help. They can be just as powerful, or even more so, than me.

Originally published March 8, 2010


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