Meet Júlio Terra, a Brazilian scientist from the state of Minas Gerais, who is studying in his PhD how to make chemical reactions more eco-friendly. Besides science, he loves teaching, singing and playing guitar.
Júlio Terra has always enjoyed teaching. As a teenager, he taught his grandmother, who couldn’t go to school as a child, to read and write. In high school, he created a tutoring group to help his classmates during exam weeks. During his undergraduate degree in Chemistry at the Federal University of Lavras (UFLA), he volunteered as a teacher at the non-governmental organization CEDET. There, he met Aline Tirelli, then a PhD student, who invited him to do an internship with her in the laboratory. “I realized that I had the aptitude to be a scientist: I liked working in the lab, planning experiments, discovering problems, analyzing results, giving talks, etc. I also discovered that I could pursue an academic career and unite my interest in research and my passion for teaching,” he says.
The laboratory at UFLA, where Júlio did his internship, was investigating ways to make chemical processes more sustainable. And he saw in this field a great opportunity. He could unite his interests in Chemistry and the environment, and still be able to apply this in teaching and research. It was the beginning of a new fascination: Green Chemistry.
During the industrial revolution, back in the 18th century, when industries started to produce on a large scale, little was known about pollution and its consequences. Today, however, despite being aware of the pollution and other environmental damages caused by industrialization, factories are still not sustainable. “Factories produce everything we need. (…). The problem is that they generate a lot of pollution and use a lot of energy. Also, often the waste they produce is dangerous to our health and to the health of animals and plants.” Besides, “several chemical elements that are crucial for the industry will disappear from the Earth’s surface if we don’t use them more carefully”, he adds. Thus, “the role of Green Chemistry is to raise these discussions and show how chemistry can make this transition”, he explains.
How does Green Chemistry work in practice? In short, this area of chemistry studies how chemical processes can be more efficient, lead to less pollution, and use less energy. But how can it achieve this? There are several ways. For example, using alternative forms of energy, using renewable raw materials, and substituting toxic reagents. Another way is to use substances that make chemical reactions faster, called catalysts. This is the object of Julio’s study in his Ph.D. in Chemistry at McGill University in Canada.
“About 90% of the processes in the chemical industry happen with catalysts. These are substances added in small amounts in a chemical reaction. They are not consumed in the reaction but completely change it. Think about crossing Brazil from north to south by car or by bullet train. The train takes you to the same destination, but by a different route. It goes faster and consumes less energy. Putting a catalyst in the reaction is like putting the reagents in a train. They create another route for the reaction to happen, form the products faster, and consume less energy”, he clarifies.
As catalysts, the Ph.D. student uses very tiny materials. These are a million times smaller than the thickness of a hair and are called nanoparticles. But what exactly does the scientist do with these particles? “What I do is to use nanomaterials as catalysts. I can change the composition of these nanoparticles, adjust their shape, and make different pore sizes. Because these particles are so small, I can disperse them in liquids to make my reactions. Since they are solid, I can separate them from the liquid and use them again in other reactions.”
In one of his projects, Julio studied how to improve the manufacturing of a drug for Parkinson’s disease. This drug already existed, but there is still a need to make its production more efficient. So in 2019, the researcher and his colleagues published a paper showing how to solve this problem by speeding up the chemical reaction. In this study, they used minute amounts of copper, used as a catalyst. The metal was inserted inside nanomaterials that have small pores, called nanopores. This confined space is where the reaction is believed to take place. “The pores also helped the reaction happen faster, since the pore is minuscule. In this way, the reactants meet and react more easily. Imagine that you need to meet your friend at a beach or in a small room: in the latter, you will meet much faster,” clarifies the researcher.
In another project, Júlio applied the knowledge of Green Chemistry to the cosmetics industry. Widely used in this sector, rose fragrance can be produced from an oil extracted from another plant, citronella. Applying the catalysis principles, the scientist and his colleagues studied how to make the manufacturing of this fragrance faster and more sustainable using one precious metal and LED light. The metal used was ruthenium, which acted as a catalyst. And the energy coming from the light served to make the reaction go faster. But ruthenium is a rare material, so it needs to be used in limited quantities. Hence, in 2020, the researchers published a paper showing a solution. They developed magnetic nanoparticles, where they could put very small amounts of ruthenium. In the end, Júlio could “retrieve them with a magnet and use them again.” As a result, ruthenium could be used in low amounts and also be reused later.
Studies like Julio’s show that, in the long run, it is possible to make industrial processes cheaper and greener. They present ways of making chemical reactions more efficient. They propose the usage of other, less pollutant materials. And, finally, they also describe how to reuse reagents extracted from nature that are finite. So projects like his are important to prove that there are alternatives to the conventional chemical industry. From the raw materials used to the last phases of production.
It is worth pointing out, though, that both of Julio’s projects were carried out on a lab scale, i.e. producing milligrams of product. Large-scale industrial production is another story since the goal is to make kilos or tons. And the adaptation from laboratory to industrial manufacturing “is usually not linear, so it is not only about multiplying all the quantities and turning the processes into large scale,” he explains. This, in fact, is the job of chemical engineering. “The importance of our projects is actually to develop the first concepts,” he says.
Then you may be asking yourself: why aren’t these concepts of Green Chemistry applied in factories more often? After all, they lead to less damage to living beings and to the environment. They also provide guidance to more efficient industrial processes. The reasons go beyond the scope of this article but they involve a lack of political will and commitment from the industrial sector. But another reason, mentioned by Julio, is the lack of entrepreneurship education for scientists like him. “Many times the changes that we propose need improvements in infrastructure in some way, so [they require] a big investment. [To change] we need a lot of experience and market knowledge to convince investors. The environmental benefit is obvious, but the financial benefit is not always. We (scientists) don’t know much about how [the bench to market] transition works. And investors need a guarantee of financial return. In the end, my impression is that we don’t speak the same language.”
Despite this, Julio’s motivation “is to spread the ideas of Green Chemistry with teaching and research.” He tells us that in recent years his scientific reference has been Professor Frances Arnold. She won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2018 for her work on ‘Directed Evolution’. “I saw her talk at a conference in 2019 and I had never heard anyone talking about chemistry with such passion and such power of discourse. She talked a lot about how her research is inspired by nature’s chemistry (…). I think it’s really cool to use nature as inspiration since nature has been doing chemistry for millions of years before we existed.” Another reference comes from his mother. Júlio tells she “is a great and very experimental cook: she tries and creates many recipes. And when it goes wrong, she always knows the right chemistry to fix them. In the end, as a chemist, I find myself always “creating recipes” in the lab to make my nanoparticles, so maybe I inherited this experimentation from my mother.”
Besides his experiments, Júlio loves playing guitar, singing, and cooking. “I love to record videos of myself singing and playing the guitar and send them as gifts to my family on special dates. I also participate in a Brazilian choir in Montreal (Choeur Scénique Brésilien), which is a wonderful reconnection for me with Brazil and with the music that is so strong in my origins. I also love cooking and discovering new recipes.”
Thank you so much, Julio, for sharing your story! May you continue spreading the ideas of Green Chemistry around the world and bringing your passion to classrooms. And that Green Chemistry become increasingly more practical than theoretical.