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Press Release 13-172
It takes a network

New EPA/NSF awards reflect the interdisciplinary nature of sustainability science

Illustration showing two people, a globe and multiple graphics

The awards address safer chemical alternatives, toxicity prediction and eco-smart manufacturing.
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September 30, 2013

Four groups of researchers hope to make the world safer via one-time sustainability science awards that the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced today.

From naturally occurring alternatives for safer synthetic chemical agents to toxicity prediction and a new multi-scale approach for eco-smart manufacturing, the Networks for Sustainable Molecular Design and Synthesis awards are intended to take a bigger-picture approach, looking at alternatives to chemicals and processes that negatively impact the environment. The program, which is funding a total of $20 million over a span of four years, is sponsored and funded jointly by NSF and the EPA. It was designed to encourage interdisciplinary approaches to research that address sustainable chemistry and materials science issues.

"The expected outcome is scientific advances that lead to safer, more sustainable chemicals by replacing rare, toxic and expensive ingredients used in popular products with earth-abundant, benign and renewable alternatives," said Carol Bessel, an NSF program officer. "By approaching these issues from a variety of perspectives that can include chemists, engineers, biologists and geologists, these networks can more effectively tackle significant environmental issues."

Networks for Sustainable Molecular Design and Synthesis are groups of two or more researchers working in trans-disciplinary fields to develop safe, sustainable chemicals as well as safe, sustainable processes and procedures.

The following are synopses of the awards:

Sustainable molecular design
Principal Investigator: Paul Anastas, Yale University
Researchers from Yale University, George Washington University, Baylor University, and University of Washington have come together to address how to design molecules so they have a minimal probability of causing toxic effects. The interdisciplinary team includes toxicologists, computational chemists, synthetic chemists, environmental engineers, genomic toxicologists, eco-toxicologists, and occupational and environmental health scientists. The research will identify key properties that enable molecules to carry out toxic mechanisms of action, thereby informing the design of how to minimize this potential. The mechanistic area is on "oxidative stress" as it is a foundation to many pathways of toxicity. The overall goal is to promote innovation by using rational chemical design guidelines in early-stage predictive and screening applications.

Improved multi-scale chemical manufacturing
Principal Investigator: Brian Laird, University of Kansas
Bringing together synthetic chemists, computational chemists, chemical engineers, and industry partners, this network seeks to accelerate innovation targeting safer and more efficient, yet still affordable, chemical processes to be used in various levels of manufacturing. Ultimately, this work aims to eliminate the use of hazardous materials, while minimizing waste, conserving resources (e.g., raw materials, energy and water), reducing environmental footprints, and enhancing the overall safety of chemical processes.

Developing eco-friendly surfactants
Principal Investigator: Jeanne Pemberton, University of Arizona
Building a better surfactant means creating detergents, wetting agents, emulsifiers, foaming agents and dispersants that reduce or eliminate toxicity and are "greener" (i.e., produced with reduced environmental and resource impact). This network engages scientists with expertise in toxicology, microbiology, and chemistry to explore the systematic design and production of an array of potentially sustainable and even renewable "glycolipid" surfactants.

Structure of the ring
Principal Investigator: Anthony Rappe, Colorado State University
Reportedly, 196 of the top 200 (98 percent) brand name drugs (by sales in 2011) contain at least one nitrogen atom in their molecular structure, and 112 of the top 186 (60 percent) have a nitrogen-containing heterocycle--a molecular "ring" containing carbon and other elements. This project brings together a network of synthetic organic and inorganic chemists, computational chemists, and spectroscopists, including representatives from Colorado State and University of Colorado-Boulder. The researchers are seeking ways to produce these chemical structures using sunlight and catalysts. Ultimately, they hope to find ways to help produce a wide range of pharmaceuticals using less energy and producing fewer byproducts. 

-NSF-

Media Contacts
Ivy F Kupec, NSF Public Affairs, (703) 292-8796, ikupec@nsf.gov

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, its budget is $7.2 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

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