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ISSUE 119 VOL 20 PUBLISHED 5/12/2006

Science symposium addresses green chemistry

By April Wright
Staff Writer

Friday, May 12, 2006

Last Friday afternoon, St. Olaf hosted its seventh annual Honors Day Science Symposium. Continuing with this year’s theme of sustainability, the title of the symposium was "A Balance For the Future: The Science of Sustainability."

This year, Professor of Biology Ted Johnson opened the conference before handing the spotlight over to President Christopher Thomforde. Thomforde's address focused on sustainability through a non-scientific lens, joking that he has been trained in the "science of theology." Thomforde said that it was important to think about life on Earth logically and critically, but also "to have an aesthetic response" and to "have wonder and awe."

Following President Thomforde was the plenary address, entitled "Desperately Seeking Alternatives: Where Will Sustainable Energy Come From?" delivered by Stephen Polasky, professor of ecological/environmental economics at the University of Minnesota.

Polasky painted a grim image of the current energy situation in the United States, saying that 86 percent of the nation’s energy comes from some type of fossil fuel.

The majority of Polasky’s speech focused on how to solve the current energy debacle, offering information on ethanol and soy biodiesel fuels.

Though he has researched the viability of alternative energy sources, Polasky also extolled the virtues of better using what we already have. Inventing new alternatives may be "exciting" and "sexy," he said, but simply increasing the efficiency of our current products can go a long way towards being sustainable.

Robin Rogers, professor of chemistry at the University of Alabama, gave the second plenary address. Entitled "The Past, Present and Future of Ionic Liquids: From Designer Solvents to Advanced New Materials," the speech explored the use of liquid salts as a green chemical.

Rogers, an expert in the field of green chemistry, spoke of the virtues of ionic liquids. He suggested minimizing the risk involved with the chemicals themselves. "Exposure limits can fail," Rogers said, but added that "green chemistry tries to eliminate risk."

Rogers also advocated using ionic liquids as solvents because they are more stable and less dangerous than many current solvents, and they can dissolve cellulose directly, giving greater control over the products and possibly leading to a reduction in plastic consumption.

Rogers finished on a hopeful note: he expects the ionic liquids industry to burgeon.

"Whether we can save the world or integrate green chemistry worldwide, we have to try," Rogers said. He also praised St. Olaf for making such a large effort to integrate green chemistry into the curriculum.

In the final plenary address for the evening, Nancy Grimm, professor of biochemistry at Arizona State University, delivered a speech entitled "Urban Ecosystems: A Challenge for Sustainability Science."

Grimm explained her interdisciplinary approach to sustainable development, saying that it is important to look at things from an environmental, economic and social point of view. She stated that more and more people would be living in cities in the future, and larger cities will increase in number.

Grimm pointed to the need to build cities in a way that is in tune with ecological principles, or else they "will not be sustainable." She cited high concentrations of nitrate in some ground water supplies in her hometown of Phoenix, Ariz. to illustrate the effects of poorly planned cities.

Grimm’s speech left the audience with as many questions as it did answers. While she made it clear that the development of cities thus far has not been beneficial from an environmental perspective, she posed many rhetorical questions as to how we can fix the problem, and to what extent the solutions need to be regulated.

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