Imagine every known chemical and compound: ammonia, ethanol, pure water, diamond — the list goes on. Yet every day more chemicals are discovered and registered with the American Chemical Society’s chemical list. The rate at which chemicals are being discovered outweighs the current capacity to study and determine properties and potential health and environmental effects they may have.
But now, in collaboration with UCSB, the Sustainable Chemical Network is creating a faster study method for such chemicals. The main goal for the initiative is to create the Chemical Life-Cycle Builder (CLB), an online tool that will more efficiently calculate any environmental and health effects new chemicals can have over their life cycles.
The Sustainable Chemical Network is a $4.8 million initiative founded by the Environmental Protection Agency. UCSB professors from all scientific disciplines are coming together with companies that include Unilever, Dow Chemical Company and Raytheon to try to find a solution to the growing need for an easily accessible and informative chemical database.
The UCSB team consists of Bren School of Environmental Science and Management professors Sangwon Suh and Arturo Keller, chemical engineering professors Susannah Scott and Michael Doherty, chemistry professor Ram Sashadri and the executive director of the UCSB Institute of Energy Efficiency, David Auston.
According to Keller, the ambitious task of registering every known chemical involves methods used in molecular design, a software that directly supports aspects related to molecular models de novo.
“We will create a database with properties of thousands of known chemicals and materials. We will then develop computational tools that will help us make predictions about new chemicals and materials, using the information from known chemicals,” Keller said. “It borrows from techniques used for molecular design that help material scientists develop new interesting materials.”
One possible implication of this undertaking is a widespread and comprehensive understanding of toxic chemicals. The CLB will act as a resource for the public to access information on life cycles of chemicals and their potential impact, thus helping to educate the public.
Keller said that the database will help educate the public on chemicals’ life cycles, which refers to the journey of a chemical from its time of extraction to the end of its ‘life.’ Many life-cycle impacts can be caused by chemicals other than the chemicals themselves.
“Every synthetic chemical or material we use has a life-cycle: extraction of raw materials, synthesis and purification, incorporation into useful products, use of the products and end-of-life, which could be recycling, destruction or disposal,” Keller said. “So we consider, or target, all stages of a chemical’s life.”
While the CLB will primarily focus on any newly discovered chemicals, the sheer number of chemicals discovered daily has directed the project toward focusing on chemicals that are believed to pose a greater relative impact on health and value.
“The focus is to develop tools for new chemicals, but we can’t address the universe of chemicals out there, so we will focus on those that are likely to have higher implications (e.g. higher resource extraction issues, toxicity, energy of conversion or use, amount used in society, etc.),” Keller said.
Following successful completion and acceptance by the network’s partners, the CLB will be an online open-access tool available for any members of the public — from high school students to Ph.D. candidates — to learn about the impact of virtually any known chemical.