Unlocking more sustainable futures with green chemistry is an article that was researched and written by Isabel Williams, a former Masters Student at Oxford University’s Department of Biology.But achieving SDGs by generalising what is proposed remains to be seen.
24 Nov 2023
Using chemistry to help reach sustainability goals is becoming an increasingly attractive research area. From solving global plastic pollution to improving the performance of rechargeable batteries found in electric cars, ‘green chemistry’ is a truly promising topic.
This article was researched and written by Isabel Williams, a former Masters Student at Oxford University’s Department of Biology.
Tackling the plastic pollution problem
Synthetic plastics do not break down easily, causing them to be a major pollutant in natural environments. Image credit: mbala mbala merlin/ Getty Images.
We are all too aware of the global plastic problem. Plastics are unsustainably produced, made, and disposed of, with the material found in the ocean, in landfills, on beaches, and even in the Antarctic. Researchers at the University of Oxford are applying innovative techniques to help tackle this problem.
But why is plastic such a problematic material? To find out why and to begin to tackle these problems, one needs to look at the material’s chemistry.
Plastics are made from synthetic ‘polymers’. Polymers are made from small molecular building blocks, called ‘monomers’, forming a large molecule resembling beads on a string. In plastics, these monomers are usually derived from non-renewable sources such as petrochemicals, making the production of plastic polymers highly unsustainable since they rely on fossil fuels. Additionally, due to the strong bonds between their monomers, synthetic polymers can persist and pollute the environment for hundreds of years before breaking down.
The solution: replacing plastics with ‘greener’ polymers
Dr Matilde Concilio (left) and Dr Gregory Sulley (right). Photo credit: Dr Gregory Sulley
Whilst efforts to reduce plastic usage and increase recycling can go a long way, it is unlikely that we can eliminate plastics entirely, particularly for uses that have food safety or human hygiene concerns. Many everyday items contain plastic polymers – including shopping bags, paint, electric car batteries, clothing, teabags, and takeaway coffee cups. But if we are not able to completely eliminate plastics, can they be replaced with a greener, more sustainable version?
Researchers at the University of Oxford’s Department of Chemistry are utilising a green chemistry approach to tackle plastic pollution. The aim? To phase out existing polymers and plastics and replace them with greener, more sustainable alternatives.
One avenue being explored is the production of polymers from renewable, bio-derived materials, rather than petrochemicals. Dr Matilde Concilio, a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Professor Charlotte Williams’ laboratory, works on making bio-derived polymers from commercially available resources. By using chemicals already commercialised, safety-checked, and approved, the hope is that any products or processes developed in this way will be swiftly accepted and adopted by industry. With bio-derived plastics accounting for only 1.5% of global plastic production in 2021, there is enormous potential for these materials to upscale and ultimately replace their less-sustainable competitors.
I’m convinced that polymers are the future, but only if you do it in a sustainable way.
Dr Matilde Concilio, Department of Chemistry
Dr Concilio’s bio-derived polymers are not only made from renewable sources but are also more sustainable from a processing standpoint. Usually, monomers need to be purified many times to achieve a high-quality final product. This is both energetically costly and expensive.
‘So, to make it more sustainable, what I’m trying to do is use monomers that don’t need to be purified’ Dr Concilio explains. This way, less energy, time, and money are spent on the polymerisation process.
Key to the development and uptake of these new polymers is ensuring that their material properties are as good as, if not better than, current petrochemically-derived options. This is essential if these new materials are to be adopted at scale within plastics industries.
Ultimately, what we want to do is phase out [the current plastics], so that our plastics, which we’re quite heavily reliant on as a society, come from renewable sources.
Dr Gregory Sulley, Department of Chemistry
‘One of the main targets for us is to try and property-match to the incumbent materials,’ says Dr Gregory Sulley, another Postdoctoral Research Associate in Professor Charlotte Williams’ laboratory. ‘Ultimately, what we want to do is phase out [the current plastics], so that our plastics, which we are quite heavily reliant on as a society, come from renewable sources.’
With continued work and collaboration, hopefully, sustainable plastics will go on to replace their more unsustainable alternatives, making plastic pollution a problem of the past. With any luck, the sight of plastic in our landfills, oceans, and beaches will soon be a distant memory.
Tailor-made polymers for energy storage solutions:
Similar green chemistry approaches are being applied to solve problems in energy storage. For instance, rechargeable batteries require their components to be in contact with one another to function. However, this is complicated by the fact that some of the components change volume as the battery is charged and discharged. With these batteries used in electric cars, solar panels, and wind turbines, overcoming this problem is a huge priority to help reach Net Zero emission targets.
So, how do you solve this problem? Enter polymers.
Dr Georgina Gregory. Photo credit: Royal Society.
Dr Georgina Gregory, a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow, also works on bio-derived polymers. Dr Gregory was formerly a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Professor Charlotte Williams’ laboratory, like Dr Concilio and Dr Sulley, but now has progressed to lead a lab group of her own. What unites these three researchers, other than their shared history with the ‘Polymer Magician’ Professor Williams, is their ability to produce bespoke polymers designed for a specific application.
This application-driven design is integral to Dr Gregory’s work to improve the design of polymers so that they can overcome the current limitations of rechargeable batteries.
‘The polymer, in some respects, comes in as a way of holding it all together’ Dr Gregory explains. This means the polymer needs to be:
Adhesive: to stick everything together in the battery;
Slightly flexible: to accommodate the changes in volume;
Ionically conductive: the polymer needs to allow ions (electrically charged atoms) to flow through the battery.
With these three properties in mind, the researchers set out to precisely design a polymer for use in batteries. By specifically selecting building blocks possessing these properties, and utilising their ability to tightly control the polymerisation process, they were able to tailor the product to the problem.
Today, the role of an architect extends far beyond creating aesthetically pleasing structures. They are at the forefront of the green building movement, integrating sustainable materials and energy-efficient designs into their projects. Rather than contributing to urban sprawl, they are repurposing existing structures for new functions, minimising the need for additional resources and energy. What’s more profound is that they are contributing to the development of sustainable cities — prioritising pedestrian-friendly designs, green spaces that boost well-being and ensuring efficient public transportation.
Hence why beyond the conventional confines of design and aesthetics, architecture degrees are fast becoming catalysts for change. These are more than just paper qualifications but a crucial means to solving complex problems that span everything from environmental sustainability to social inclusivity.
The architects these universities aim to produce go beyond the traditional boundaries of their profession, recognising the interconnectedness of the built environment with broader societal and environmental issues. Armed with a holistic understanding of the world’s challenges, graduates from these institutions are poised to revolutionise the way we build, live, and interact with our environment.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Situated in a globally influential Bi-city region, the School of Architecture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) offers students the chance to explore the socio-spatial challenges of a rapidly transforming urban landscape of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. From dense high-rise districts to tropical country parks, over 200 islands, and heritage sites, this is a vast living laboratory of diverse architectural contexts.
CUHK’s MArch is the second part of a two-degree sequence in professional architectural education. Source: The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Location aside, the school also stands out for its dedicated infrastructure. Housed within CUHK’s expansive, green 138.4-hectare campus, it is the only division of its kind in Hong Kong with a purpose-designed building solely devoted to the study of architecture — the 7,700-square metre facility provides students with unlimited access to state-of-the-art resources and a conducive environment for an impactful education. The school operates within the Faculty of Social Science and is uniquely positioned to address issues of Asian urbanism, drawing students passionate about driving social and environmental change.
For aspiring undergraduates, the Bachelor of Social Science (Architectural Studies) provides a solid foundation, instilling creative skills for crafting solutions that seamlessly blend cultural nuances, physical contexts, and cutting-edge environmental technologies. It’s an effective pathway to the School of Architecture’s accredited Master of Architecture (MArch), which prepares students for advanced research, design thinking and speculative spatial practices. Its aim is to evolve learners into leading architects at the heart of social, urban and rural innovation to create solutions for environmental challenges. The Master of Science in Urban Design is just as impactful, a gateway to mastering the art and science of creating vibrant, sustainable, and socially just cities.
All three programmes are accredited by local and international professional institutions. In true CUHK fashion, all three programmes emphasise small group settings, community engagement, and close ties to the booming industry of architecture, offering students unparalleled opportunities for professional and personal growth.
Students at the Department of Architecture in ETH Zürich (D-ARCH) in Switzerland are designing for a different world. Guided by high-quality teaching and informed by research, they are exploring the issues of future cities, energy, climate change and sustainability – and putting their own stamp on them.
The Department of Architecture of ETH Zürich is currently home to 2,120 students. Source: ETH Zürich
Faculty here are diverse and highly skilled, with expertise ranging from the development of new construction systems to conservation, from the use of robotics to historiography and sociology. Working in close proximity with students and with the protection of academic freedom, they encourage students in both bachelor’s and master’s programmes to join the search for creative solutions in the field of tension between construction, the satisfaction of living and working needs and the preservation of a livable, designed environment.
The institutes of D-ARCH are: Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (GTA), the Institute of Technology in Architecture (ITA), the Institute of Historic Building Research and Conservation (IDB) and the Institute of Landscape and Urban Studies (LUS). Within each lies many opportunities to excel in teaching, learning and research.
Each is closely linked with the design studios through the interdisciplinary definition of task, with research findings funnelled into teaching. Further collaboration with other divisions of ETH Zurich – such as the humanities, social and political sciences, as well as the material, environmental and engineering sciences – complement this.
The University of Melbourne
Located in Australia, The University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning is producing the next generation of architects through a multidisciplinary approach that allows them to become innovative leaders in the field.
The Faculty’s multidisciplinary approach prepares students to advance into the world as leading, adaptable professionals in their fields. Source: The University of Melbourne
For example, Bachelor of Design students are given the flexibility to combine in-depth study in a particular area with subjects from other disciplines in design. Master’s programmes equip students with knowledge across a wide range of disciplines and practical learning opportunities to apply real-world knowledge.
The faculty also has a strong international reputation for graduate research, where students and professors focus on the latest debates and engage with industry professionals, policy-makers and the community in analysing and solving complex problems in architecture.
The National University of Singapore (NUS) is a leading global university based in Asia, powered by a mission “to transform the way people think and do things through education, research and service.”
In the QS World University Rankings 2023, the NUS Department of Built Environment is ranked seventh. Source: National University of Singapore/Facebook
Its School of Design and Environment (SDE) stands apart with its diverse offerings in two departments — Architecture and the Built Environment — and one division — Industrial Design. Since its inception, SDE has remained the sole faculty in Singapore to provide a comprehensive and integrated approach to teaching and research across various disciplines, including architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning and design, project and facilities management, building performance and sustainability, as well as industrial design.
“We provide world-class multi-disciplinary graduate-level courses and research programmes related to design and the built environment,” says Professor Wong Nyuk Hien, Vice Dean (Research), School of Design and Environment.
This year’s Times Higher Education take the pulse of the research and teaching strengths of more than 200 universities in the MENA region to produce Arab University Rankings 2023: a region of resilience and growth.
Even as many universities struggle to keep the lights on, others reap the rewards of strong investment and tumult elsewhere, writes Pola Lem
The statement encapsulates the resilience not just of a Lebanese institution grappling with record-high inflation, but also that of its peers in the wider Arab region, which has been especially hard hit by the global economic crisis. But while many universities have been struggling to keep the lights on – quite literally, in some cases – others have reaped the rewards of strong government investment and the flight of scholars from neighbouring nations.
This year’s Times Higher Education Arab University Rankings take the pulse of the research and teaching strengths of more than 200 universities across 15 countries. Together, our league table – which this year reflects an updated methodology – and our editorial content capture the complex dynamics in a region with starkly different realities.
In our analysis, we examine the factors motivating researchers to uproot from some parts of the region and settle in others. This “push and pull” dynamic weaves through a selection of interviews and opinion articles featured alongside THE’s third annual Arab rankings.
In the United Arab Emirates, Timothy Baldwin, the head of the world’s first postgraduate university devoted to artificial intelligence, tells us about establishing a “clean-slate institution” in a prosperous young country keen to build its reputation as an investor in cutting-edge technology.
“We have just experienced the hottest summer on record, with the highest temperatures, fastest rates of ice melt, most dramatic wildfires and highest incidence of extreme weather,” she writes. “Water shortages, crop failures and species extinction are news of the day, and with them come forced migrations that test our humanity.”
But her message, like that of Mawad in Lebanon, comes with a rallying cry – a call for action and grit in the face of great adversity: “The MENA region is severely affected, with its traditional warm climate, water shortages and desert landscapes, but this is no reason to throw up our hands in despair.”
What is the Global South? A term that is in increasingly constant use nowadays according to many and to the author, Joseph S. Nye who reviews it and came up with what follows.
3 November 2023
CAMBRIDGE — The term “Global South” is in constant use nowadays. For example, some commentators warn that Israel’s incursion into Gaza is “alienating the Global South”, and we often hear that the “Global South” wants a ceasefire in Ukraine. But what do people mean when they use it?
Geographically, the term refers to the 32 countries below the equator (in the southern hemisphere), in contrast to the 54 countries that lie entirely north of it. Yet, it is often misleadingly used as shorthand for a global majority, even though most of the global population is above the equator (as is most of the world’s landmass). For example, we often hear that India, the world’s most populous country, and China, the second most populous, are vying for leadership of the Global South, with both having recently held diplomatic conferences for that purpose. Yet, both are in the northern hemisphere.
The term, then, is more of a political slogan than an accurate description of the world. In this sense, it seems to have gained traction as a euphemism to replace less acceptable terms. During the Cold War, countries that were not aligned with either the United States or the Soviet Union blocs were said to belong to the “Third World”. Non-aligned countries held their own conference in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955, and there are still 120 countries constituting a weak non-aligned movement today.
Nonetheless, with the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991, the idea of a non-aligned Third World no longer made much sense. For a time, it became common to refer to “less-developed countries”. But that term had a pejorative ring to it, so people soon began to refer to “developing countries”.
Although that term has its own problems, not all low-income countries are developing, after all, it proved useful in the context of United Nations diplomacy. The Group of 77 (G-77) now comprises 135 countries, and exists to promote their collective economic interests. Outside the UN context, however, there are too many differences between members for the organization to serve a meaningful role.
Another fad term that has come into vogue is “emerging markets”, which refers to countries like India, Mexico, Russia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China, Brazil and a few others. In 2001, Jim O’Neill, then a managing director at Goldman Sachs, coined the acronym BRIC in a paper that identified Brazil, Russia, India, and China as emerging economies with high growth potential. Though he was offering investment analysis, some political leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, seized on the grouping as a potential diplomatic platform to counter American global influence.
After a series of meetings, the first BRIC summit was held in Yekaterinburg, Russia, in 2009. With the addition of South Africa the following year, the group became the BRICS. Then, at the 15th BRICS summit this past August, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that six emerging-market countries (Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) would join the bloc on January 1, 2024.
Ever since it became a conference-holding body, the BRICS has often been seen as representing the Global South. But, again, Brazil and South Africa (and now Argentina) are the only members from the Southern Hemisphere, and even as a political replacement for the Third World, BRICS is rather limited conceptually and organisationally.
The term’s main value is diplomatic. Though China is a middle-income country in the Northern Hemisphere that is competing with the US for global influence, it likes to describe itself as a developing country that plays an important leadership role within the Global South. Still, in conversations with Chinese academics on a recent trip to Beijing, I found differences among them. Some saw the term as a useful political tool; others suggested that more accurate terminology would divide the world into high-, middle-, and low-income countries. But even then, not all low-income countries have the same interests or priorities. Somalia and Honduras, for example, have very different problems.
For journalists and politicians, the high-, middle-, low-income terminology does not roll easily off the tongue or fit well in headlines. For want of an alternative shorthand, they will continue to rely on “Global South”. But anyone interested in a more accurate description of the world should be wary of such a misleading term. Project Syndicate, 2023.
Joseph S. Nye, Jr., a professor at Harvard University and a former US assistant secretary of defence, is the author, most recently, of “Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump” (Oxford University Press, 2020). Copyright:
A Peer-Reviewed Publication about our life in the future that cannot be envisaged without a decent and effective system of learning for future generations.
The above-featured image is for illustration and is credit to Pinterest.
A sustainable future is based on a learning society
UNIVERSITY OF EASTERN FINLAND
Escalating planetary crises, including climate change, the depletion of natural resources and the human-induced sixth mass extinction, pose increasing demands on pursuing a good life. As the planet is reaching its limits, old perceptions of well-being are being questioned.
A holistic transformation is needed for the planet to accommodate people’s pursuit of well-being. A new study by an international team of researchers explores a Theory of Planetary Social Pedagogy as a driver of a transformative process based on a learning society.
The Theory of Planetary Social Pedagogy is a way of learning applicable to all societal sectors. According to it, people, societies and the world are an interlinked, systemic entity. Such a worldview can make life meaningful, increase people’s experiences of belonging and inclusion, expand the scope of care, and help people identify their opportunities to influence.
In a time marked by crises, learning to be one with the world is increasingly essential. In many ways, our everyday lives are linked with all other life on Earth. People are constantly connected to their surrounding reality through, for example, the food they eat and the air they breathe.
According to Professor Arto O. Salonen of the University of Eastern Finland, the study’s lead author, the main reason behind the escalating planetary crises is the illusion of people being detached from their surrounding reality.
“As we strive for a comprehensive sustainability transition, we need increasingly robust and more systemic interpretations of reality.”
The current political strategy for a sustainable future emphasises economic and technological progress, but that is not enough. Learning is needed, too. A learning society relies on changes in its citizens’ values, beliefs and worldviews.
“How we become aware of our everyday connection to other people and nature at the level of our emotions, body and mind stands at the core of the sustainability transition,” says Planning Manager Erkka Laininen of the OKKA Foundation for Teaching, Education, and Personal Development, a co-author of the study. Having an experience of belonging to and being part of the world strengthens people’s sense of meaningfulness and their agency needed in building a sustainable future.
The transformative power of a learning society can be a key factor in the green transformation permeating all society, in which citizens’ consumer behaviour and ways of living, moving and producing food and energy are organised in new ways. Conceptions of work and the economy can be reformed, too.
A sustainable future is not about life becoming more miserable – it’s about life becoming richer and more meaningful as hope for the future grows stronger.
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Earth has been used as a building material for at least the last 12,000 years. Ethnographic research into earth being used as an element of Aboriginal architecture in Australia suggests its use probably goes back much further.
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