April 2008 Issue
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Chemical Cleanup

A small glass jar sits on the lab counter. A man in a white lab coat and safety goggles pours in a solution of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate—materials found in everyday laundry detergent. Next he adds a tiny amount of a catalyst, known as a tetra-amido macrocyclic ligand (or Fe-TAML) activator. After tinting the solution a bright orange with a quick shot of dye, he adds hydrogen peroxide to the jar. Within two seconds, the water turns crystal clear. He squirts the dye in again; again, the water miraculously clears. He does it two more times. The Fe-TAML activator that’s cleaning the water will stay active for at least 100 dye additions.

This simple demonstration shows, on a very basic level, how effectively Fe-TAML activators work. The brainchild of Carnegie Mellon’s pioneering green chemistry guru, Terry Collins, Fe-TAML activators have wide-ranging applications, from decontaminating biological weapons, to cleaning the water we use to wash and drink, to reducing or eliminating toxic residue produced by major industries.

Collins, head of the University’s Institute for Green Oxidation Chemistry, and his team are working to change the way we live by creating a cleaner and greener world. A sizable portion—$8.5 million—of a recent $22 million grant from the Heinz Endowments will help Collins and the institute transform the practice and curriculum of chemistry.
—Elizabeth May

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