Yale Professor Paul Anastas, widely considered the ‘father of green chemistry,' was honored Sept. 1 with the prestigious August Wilhelm von Hofmann Commemorative Medal by the German Chemistry Society. Past recipients of the medal have gone on to receive the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
The Society’s 2022 award was given to two people this year — Anastas, Yale professor of epidemiology (environmental health sciences) and Teresa and H. John Heinz III Professor in the Practice of Chemistry for the Environment, and John Warner, a distinguished research fellow at the Zymergen Corporation and one of the founders of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry.
The pair are considered the co-founders of the concept of green chemistry, also known as sustainable chemistry, which focuses on the design of products and processes that minimize or eliminate the use of hazardous substances. While environmental chemistry focuses on the effects of polluting chemicals on nature, green chemistry focuses on the environmental impact of chemistry, including lowering consumption of nonrenewable resources and technological approaches for preventing pollution.
Anastas and Warner established a foundation for the field of green chemistry with the 1998 publication of their seminal book Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, in which they outlined 12 distinct principles of green chemistry.
“I am just so amazingly honored by this award,” Anastas said. “I never could have imagined that I would be receiving the Hoffman medal, so this is really pretty wonderful.”
Established in 1902, the August Wilhelm von Hofmann Commemorative Medal is given to individuals from Germany and abroad who have achieved great things in chemistry. August Wilhelm von Hofmann was an award-winning German chemist whose discoveries include formaldehyde and hydrazobenzene. Anastas and Warner were honored Sept. 1 in a ceremony in Lisbon, Portugal.
Anastas and Warner are childhood friends who grew up together in Quincy, Massachusetts. They both attended Quincy High School and furthered their education at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. They solidified their interest in chemistry while working together in the lab of UMass Chemistry Professor Jean-Pierre Anselme.
Anastas coined the term ‘green chemistry’ while working as a staff chemist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he also started the first research program in the field. In 1997, he co-founded the Green Chemistry Institute at the American Chemical Society.
“At the time, all of the issues having to do with chemicals didn't have chemists involved in the solutions,” Anastas said. “The people who can have the greatest influence on solving and addressing and, most importantly, avoiding these problems [weren’t] involved in the discussion.”
Anastas worked in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 1999 to 2004, where he rose to the level of Assistant Director for the Environment. He returned to the EPA in 2009, where he served as the agency’s assistant administrator and science advisor over a three-year span. Anastas currently holds appointments with the Yale School of the Environment, Department of Chemistry, and Department of Chemical Engineering. He also serves as the director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale.
Anastas firmly believes processes that produce less toxic and harmful substances exist, which could aid in decarbonization and the restoration of natural resources.
“The general public needs to know that green chemistry is possible,” Anastas said. “Green chemistry is better chemistry.”
This framework for using greener chemicals, processes, and products is vital for innovation and problem-solving to reduce future environmental harm and waste in all facets of life, Anastas said.
“The inventions, the innovations, the new materials, the new manufacturing processes, these need to be put into place and go to scale,” he said.
Anastas and his collaborators continue to make green chemistry more accessible to the greater public through the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, which is currently working on an initiative to design safer chemicals and compounds for everyday use.