Innocuous insulation and harmless hand lotion
Students of the 2014 Greener Solutions class present their work on spray foam insulation and preservatives, and reflect on what they’ve learned
Soybeans, spider silk, and pine needles: these are a few of the materials that students in the 2014 Greener Solutions class were inspired by in their quests to develop safer insulation materials, and better preservatives for household and personal care products. They spent the past semester working with government and business partners to find safer alternatives to the chemicals currently used to keep houses warm and to prevent soaps and lotions from spoiling. On December 10, 2014, they presented their findings to an audience that included representatives from industry, government, and academia.
The Greener Solutions class is run by the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry (BCGC), and co-taught by BCGC executive director Dr. Marty Mulvihill and associate director Dr. Meg Schwarzman. The class, which is in its third year, partners interdisciplinary groups of graduate students with businesses interested in safer materials. “We take our interdisciplinary teams of students,” says Mulvihill “we give them some basic skills, and then we toss them out there and give them a real-world problem.”
This year, for the first time, there were two student groups and two separate projects. Tina Hoang of the School of Public Health, Patrick Gorman of the College of Chemistry, and Jeremy Faludi from the mechanical engineering department worked with General Coatings Manufacturing Corp. and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to find replacements for methylene diphenyl diisocynate (MDI), a toxic ingredient in spray-foam insulation. This year DTSC named spray-foam insulation as a priority product, which means that companies will soon be required to look for safer, MDI-free formulations to sell in California.
Heather Buckley, a post-doctoral scholar at BCGC, Adam Byrne of environmental engineering, William Hart-Cooper from the College of Chemistry, and Jiawen Liao from the school of Public Health worked on the second challenge: finding safer preservatives for household and personal care products, such as laundry detergents and face creams. There are no regulatory pressures to replace the current preservatives in use, but Beautycounter and Seventh Generation Inc., the two partner companies on this project, were both aiming for the safest products possible.
“I think it’s an exciting opportunity for us to get involved with the university,” says Seventh Generation’s director of R&D Clement Choy, “and kind of get us recalibrated a little bit on academia, and what they can help us with.”
The students in both groups began by looking for inspiration from nature, with help from the Biomimicry Institute (BI) based in Missoula, Montana. With BI’s help, “We were able to look at how biology approaches the preservative challenge,” says Buckley, “and how those could actually be used in ways that were relevant for product formulations.” Buckley and her colleagues identified several classes of natural compounds with antimicrobial activity, including terpenes, peptides, fatty acids, and flavonoids. These types of chemicals occur naturally in pine trees, milk, fish oil, and tea leaves, respectively.
Gorman, Hoang, and Faludi found compounds in soy protein, scorpion exoskeletons, and spider silk that had similar functionality to the chemicals currently used in spray foam insulation. After searching for biomimetic solutions, they evaluated the pros and cons of the spray foam alternatives already on the market. The advantages of working in an interdisciplinary group became especially apparent at this step.
Faludi, the mechanical engineer of the group, had worked as a LEED certifier and had significant experience evaluating different types of insulation. “I wanted to solve the problem just by using different chemistries,” says Gorman, “and thank God we had a public health student and a mechanical engineer because they had other outlooks, from the biomimetic outlooks to the actual technologies used in industry already.” The group ended up identifying foamed concrete, a product already on the market, as the most practical replacement for MDI.
Working with business leaders, and students outside their field, “asks something we don’t often ask of students in graduate school,” says Schwarzman. The students do team-building exercises at the beginning of the semester, and have lessons on communicating effectively with their partner organizations. Mulvihill and Schwarzman also teach some of the “universal skills that you hope students acquire over the course of graduate school,” Schwarzman says, including in-depth research, technical writing, and presentation skills.
Along with these abilities, the students gain a greater appreciation for the impact of the chemicals in the products they buy as consumers or use in the lab. “When I’m just looking at a computer screen with chemical prices, I hit buy and they show up at my desk,” says Gorman. Before Greener Solutions, he says he didn’t think about what went into that cost, or about the chemicals’ life cycle—how they were manufactured, and where they would end up.
Buckley, and many of the other students, was optimistic about the future of green chemistry. “I think there’s a lot of potential in this space,” she says, “and a there’s lot of momentum for moving beyond just talking about what could happen for change, and actually bringing change into that space over the next couple of years.”
After the December presentation, the recommendations from the student groups were delivered to their partner organizations in formal reports. The business will do further research on how they can be implemented in their products, and the USDA is partnering with Greener Solutions students to investigate promising preservatives. Some of the students will also continue the fall semester’s work this spring in the Greener Solutions Translations seminar. The seminar will focus on translating the teams’ findings for a variety of audiences, and investigating subsequent research and development steps. Past Greener Solutions projects have led to a policy recommendation report for the European Union, and new research projects in BCGC.
Article and video written and produced by Mallory Pickett, student at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
The Greener Solutions program is funded in part with a grant from the US EPA (grant #99T19601)
Spray Foam Insulation Challenge
Chemical Perservatives Challenge