Green Chemistry Event a Great Success at Pittsburgh's First Night Celebration

Carnegie Mellon’s top green chemistry scientists put on an interactive New Year’s event at the First Night Celebration in downtown Pittsburgh. Over 1000 children had the opportunity to participate in green chemistry by being taught how to clean water using safe, biodegradable chemical reagents.

Colin Horwitz, a research professor and deputy director of the Institute for Green Oxidation Chemistry at CMU, was contacted by the Three Rivers Arts Festival and asked to organize and design a fun experiment for children. A water-cleaning experiment seemed like the perfect idea. Horwitz designed a hands-on, safe, and fun experiment for children between the ages of eight and 12. He enlisted the help of several CMU professors and graduate students, and received donations from a variety of companies, including the American Chemical Society and Fisher Scientific.

“I think a lot of people just don’t know what happens at CMU,” said Horwitz. “There was such a diverse crowd — this really impacted people from the region. I was proud we could show the community something fun from CMU.”

The experiment consisted of three bottles containing different liquids. The first contained water and a dye, representing a model pollutant. The other two bottles contained hydrogen peroxide and Fe-TAML catalyst, the key player. The experimenter had to add the two solutions to the contaminated water bottle and shake it up. The dye would disappear and it would look like normal water! Quite an amazing phenomenon for young children.

“The kids were just amazed,” said Greg Lowry, a professor in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering. Lowry volunteered on First Night and helped the children run the experiment and understand how it works. “The line was already out the door and around the corner before we even opened. The number of kids that showed up was phenomenal, and many even repeated the experiment several times.”

“I enjoy working with children, and I think it is great to get kids excited about science, and especially green chemistry,” said Melanie Ann Vrabel, a graduate student. Vrabel volunteered at the event and distributed “giveaways” to the children, including bookmarks, stickers, periodic tables, experiment guides, and yo-yos. “Our environment is so important to us, and it is important to teach children about the environment and how we can take care of it. They are the future, and they will be responsible for the maintenance of our environment,” Vrabel said.

Hoping to solve one of the biggest issues of today, water pollution, the ground-breaking Fe-TAML technology was developed. The Fe-TAML catalyst works by activating oxidants such as hydrogen peroxide. The purpose is to exchange harmful oxidants and dangerous chemicals that can bioaccumulate in ecosystems and foodchains with non-toxic, biodegradable chemicals. It took about 25 years to develop a suitable catalyst system that had a fast enough rate of conversion, was economically viable, and could work on large quantities of water.

“Fe-TAML technology is just one piece of the puzzle to building a sustainable civilization,” said Vrabel. “Industries who generate pollution may turn to Fe-TAML technology as a method of waste treatment in order to release less hazardous substances into the environment.”

The Fe-TAML catalyst system will ultimately be aimed at cleaning large water systems and helping companies put out cleaner water. Industries of interest that will benefit from this technology include the pulp and paper industry, textile dying mills, and residual pesticide decontamination. Other areas of interest in which Horwitz and collaborators are working to implement Fe-TAML include deactivating chemical weapons, as well as in laundry applications that would prevent dye transfer of clothes.

“Kids need to become involved in their community and be aware of their environment,” said Horwitz. “We really need to get the ball rolling at an earlier age, and give kids an appreciation of the world around them.”

The green chemistry event at the First Night Celebration was such a success that it will be repeated twice, by scientists at the University of Nottingham in the U.K. and at National Engineers Week at the Carnegie Science Center in February. Over 6500 people are expected to show, so come and join the fun!