Dr. John Warner: Father of Green Chemistry

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  • Name: Dr. John Warner

  • Education: PhD in Chemistry, Princeton University; BS in Chemistry from UMASS Boston
  • Target Audience: Middle School

Many products in our world today are made with toxic materials. Now, picture a world without toxins - no pollution, no hazardous materials, and no harmful products. Green Chemists, like John Warner PhD, are working to make this dream a reality. Learn what makes Dr. Warner's work as a green chemist not only important to us, but critical for generations to come in this exclusive Kids Ahead article.

What is Green Chemistry?

My whole thesis is that people have an awareness of the environment and a need to do something meaningful withimage their lives people want to "save the world" so to speak. However, when you make a list of all the careers that can lead you in that direction, chemistry is not on the top of the list. In fact, chemistry is usually seen as the problem, not the solution. In order to have a sustainable future, we need to have chemists who invent it. We have to invent new, safe materials to replace old materials and existing technologies. That is the most important aspect of green chemistry - taking the passion that exists for the environment and inventing a sustainable future.

Why did you choose this career?

I was a chemist and cared about the world. In the 1990's, Paul Anastas and I wrote a book on green chemistry, Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, that defined the field. My career path was unique in that I didn't see a career and decide to pursue it - I created it. In my opinion, one of the most important things a person can do is dedicate their life to inventing safe materials. That's something important for everyone to know - life isn't about finding your place, it's about making your place.

Explain what an average week at work is like for you.

imageI don't want to scare people away, but my work week is usually about 120 hours. I started this institute though and really pioneered the field of green chemistry so my week is longer than what is typical for the industry. We are constantly inventing all kinds of new materials. We have scientists working on pharmaceuticals to help Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, we're working on solar energy devices, and creating cosmetics that are non-toxic and environmentally benign. At any given time, we're working on making many different types of products environmentally sustainable, while improving performance and cost. We don't believe that sustainable products should have to be very expensive. It's the job of the chemist to make products that are cost-effective and safe available to everyone.

What do you like best about your job?

The people that I work with. Solving problems requires people with different perspectives, different ideas and from different backgrounds. The human component of interacting with people is the best part of my job - in my opinion no one person can solve a problem alone.

When you were a kid, did you like science, engineering and/or math?  If not, what changed your mind?

Not really. Actually, I graduated from my high school as the class musician and had every expectation of going into music. A lot of kids graduate from high school thinking that they may be locked into a career for the rest of their lives and that's just not the case. I started college as a music major and kind of stumbled into chemistry.

Was there a moment when you knew that you wanted to become a chemist? Tell us about it.

There was a moment where I came to this realization that I had become a chemist, but there wasn't a moment of epiphany that led to that point. There wasn't a grand plan to become a chemist - it just happened organically.image

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a green chemist?

The biggest challenge for me was recognizing how to deal with options and choices that I've made. Happiness and satisfaction isn't an external thing. Instead of focusing on things you may have chosen not to do, focus on what you've chosen to do and whether or not that is making you happy. You decide yourself, internally, what makes you happy and what satisfies you.

Was there a person who inspired or convinced you to get involved in your field? Who was he/she and how did he/she do it?

I've had tons of inspirations. You go through life accumulating knowledge from the people around you - mentors, loved ones, friends... It's hard to point to one specific individual. The way I look at the world is an amalgam through all their eyes.

Do you have any suggestions for how kids in middle school can gain real world experience in your field?


Check out museums, science clubs and tour science facilities. If you think you might like something, find a way to experience it at some level to determine if it's the right fit for you.

What direction do you see green chemistry taking in the future?

I sure hope that I have more competition. It's great for my business, but I hope to see more institutes and organizations that have a similar mission. For the field to grow - I need to have more competition. The only way that the field of green chemistry will grow is if future students insist on it becoming a part of college chemistry curriculum and if the public demands better products.

Green Chemistry Catalysts:

  • In 1990, Congress passed the Pollution Prevention Act, a policy that states that pollution should be prevented or reduced at the source and recycled in an environmentally safe manner 
  • In 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adopted the principles from the Pollution Prevention Act as one of its declared objectives
  • In the mid-1990's, Paul Anastas and John Warner developed the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry: a framework to help us think about how to prevent pollution when inventing new chemicals and materials

(adapted from warnerbabcock.com)

Lab Lingo:

Alzheimer's - medical disorder causing dementia
Green Chemistry - chemical research and engineering that encourages the design of products and processes that minimize the use and generation of hazardous substances
Parkinson's - a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system characterized by tremor and impaired muscular coordination
Pharmaceuticals - legal drugs (non-street drugs)
Sustainable - ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level
Thesis - a statement declares what you believe and what you intend to prove
Toxins - any chemical or mixture that may be harmful to the environment and to human health if inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin

(adapted from dictionary.com)