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Chemistry Professor Making the Most of his Waste

October 31, 2012

Chemistry Professor Jason Hein and his students make a lot of compounds in the lab.

They also make a lot of chemical waste.

But Hein found a way to clean up the waste and reuse it, saving money and helping the environment at the same time.

“I’m very excited about this project,” said Dean Juan Meza of the School of Natural Sciences. “This is a perfect example of our faculty’s entrepreneurial and innovative spirit. It serves as a model for our campus’s commitment to sustainability.”

Hein and his students handle many chemicals, but one of the most common is acetone, a solvent used to clean all the glassware used in their synthetic-organic lab.

Usually, the used acetone is stored in containers elsewhere on campus until the company that picks up campus waste comes to get it. UC Merced pays to have the chemical waste hauled off. But by putting it through a biotech solvent recycler, they can make one 20-liter jug of acetone last through four to five uses. In the end, the lab winds up with far less waste.

“I knew I was going to be one of the biggest polluters,” Hein said, “so I wanted to make sure I could do something about it.”

In the six months since they began recycling acetone, Hein and his six researchers have saved 65 gallons of acetone, diverted 500 pounds of waste and saved the campus $3,000 in hazardous waste fees. At that rate, the recycling machine will have paid for itself in a little more than two years.

But what if all of UC Merced’s labs that use acetone were to do the same thing?

“We hope to make this common practice rather than the exception at UC Merced,” Vice Chancellor for Research Sam Traina said. “Not only does this allow us to contain our research cost and advance our sustainability agenda, it is also an excellent example to our graduate student researchers on the practical use of ‘best practices’ in the research lab. This will serve them well when they leave UC Merced and set up research labs or chemical businesses of their own.”

Hein said that’s exactly what he’s aiming for.

“It could become a campuswide initiative, because as research ramps up, chemical use and disposal could get very expensive,” he said.

UC Merced is the perfect place to try this out, he said, because the campus has a commitment to sustainability and policies and practices are still flexible here. It’s a good chance to start a long-term sustainable practice that will also save the campus lots of money.

“The program will save the researchers money by reducing the quantity of solvent purchased and it will save the campus’s Environmental Health and Safety department money through reduced chemical disposal,” said Karen Smith, EH&S specialist.

The campus is considered a small-quantity waste generator, and as such is required to ship hazardous waste off campus twice a year. Each shipment costs about $11,000 because the campus has to pay $7 to $10 per pound of waste it ships out.

If UC Merced becomes a large-quantity generator, Smith said, it will be required to ship waste four times a year. The recycling program will help the campus maintain its current status and keep the environment that much cleaner.

Each time acetone is run through the recycler, which Hein said is like a still or a coffee maker, it comes out clean enough for further use, but its volume is reduced by about 20 percent.

“In the end, it is just like aluminum recycling,” he said. “Losses due to processing mean it is not an infinite game, but we get a lot more use out of the same material without just throwing it into the landfill.”

A lab at the Castle facility is also using the recycler, and Hein said eventually, the campus should get more recycling equipment and let EH&S take over managing the recycling program so it can be efficiently expanded.

The program has already attracted the interest of the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry.

“We’d have to develop protocols and train people,” Hein said, “but I’m hoping we can put together a package of information so other campuses can implement this, too.”