I am often asked what a Professor of Sustainable Chemistry is and why I chose the title. The report of the World Commission on Environment and Development to the United Nations defined ‘sustainable development’ as development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Chemistry and materials science have an important role to play in this, hence ‘sustainable chemistry’.

The first industrial revolution in the UK started every bit as much with the large-scale production of sulphuric acid (John Roebuck, 1746) as with the Spinning Jenny (James Hargreaves, 1768). In fact, wherever industrialization occurs the chemicals industry is found.

With industrialization came pollution. It is impossible not to be appalled when reading a description of the living conditions in the industrialized Victorian cities of England. The atmosphere, rivers, and seas were seen as dumping grounds for the new factories.

It wasn't until 100 years later (Towns Improvement Clauses Act, 1847) that smoke-reduction legislation began and other industrial pollution was tackled (Alkali Act, 1863), but there were no actual regulations concerning amounts of air pollution until this act was revised in 1906. From this point forward the control of pollution and protection of the environment became ever more part of the operations of the UK chemicals industry.

Why is this history relevant to today's world? Unfortunately, it still seems that the basic model for industrialization is to pollute first and worry about the environmental impact later – “when it can be afforded” – as if it is some luxury add-on. Indeed, the introduction of these early pollution controls was opposed at the time on the basis that it would so damage profitability that industry would collapse. However, the 20th century saw a huge expansion of the chemicals industry. It created new products that our Victorian ancestors couldn't have begun to imagine, it also generated vast wealth while the damage that it caused to the environment greatly declined.

This is a central message of sustainable chemistry – that there is no fundamental contradiction between making chemicals economically (i.e. profitably) and leaving a healthy environment for those who follow us. We scientists and engineers are more than creative enough to meet this challenge. We just need to remember that it is one of our aims.

We are at an exciting point in the history of the chemicals industry. It is growing in size and spreading across the globe. There is a real opportunity now to break with the Victorian model of industrialization and to avoid the initial environmental degradation that accompanied it. I see this as one of the grand challenges of the coming century, every bit as important as the more glamorous pursuits coming from the biological/biotechnological revolution.

There certainly isn't a lack of interest holding sustainable chemistry back. When we launched a masters course at Imperial College, Green Chemistry: Energy and the Environment, we received many more excellent applications from the developing world than we could provide scholarships for.

I am glad to say that sustainable chemistry doesn't have aspirations to be a discipline in its own right. It is more a way of viewing what we do. There is no policeman (certainly not me) with a list of rules for sustainability. You are the expert at what you do and you will know how to make your activities more sustainable. Much of your success in this field will be hidden, by rivers not becoming contaminated and air not becoming noxious. Yet it is a truly satisfying pursuit.

So, do I spend every minute of my research time working out how to save the planet and do I expect you to do so? Not at all. Most of my current research is on the physical organic chemistry of ionic liquids and the reactivity of solutes in these and other solvents. I also use ionic liquids as solvents for catalysis. I teach, and was trained in, inorganic chemistry. I could have chosen any of these as the marque for my chair. My point is that none of us are only one thing and that consequently we can all, and indeed should all, be sustainable chemists.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(08)70100-7