Why is Green Chemistry important? Origins and Industry Impact

For the past few decades, the scientific community as well as society as a whole has raised its voice on the impact our actions have on the environment, pressing authorities and looking for solutions to address the problem. One of the main focuses has been set on Chemistry, as many “traditional” chemical processes are not sustainable in the long run, with devastating consequences for the environment and quality of life.

In this context, there’s a term that has been slowly, but steadily, gaining traction: Green Chemistry

As the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) puts it, Green Chemistry (also known as Sustainable Chemistry) encompasses the “invention, design, and application of chemical products and processes to reduce or to eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances”.

But what does this all mean? Why is green chemistry important and how does it contribute to the world’s sustainable development?

Let’s start by going back in history…

The Origins of Green Chemistry

According to the American Chemical Society (ACS), the term “Green Chemistry” was first coined by the US Environmental Protection Agency - Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxins around the 1990s.

The idea of a greater consciousness regarding chemistry had been gaining power since the 60s and 70s, however, it was mostly focused on banning dangerous toxins like DDT and “cleaning up” the aftermath of certain chemical activities. It was not until the 80s and 90s that scientists started thinking differently about their way of doing chemistry, shifting the focus on how to prevent pollution before it even took place.

Then, in 1998, two scientists named Paul Anastas and John C. Warner published what today is popularly known as the "Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry".

The Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry

First published in the book “Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice”, the Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry is a set of guidelines that other chemists can consult to work towards a more sustainable chemistry. The book marked a new era, by helping consolidate a movement that was destined to define how modern chemistry is made.

The principles highlighted in Anastas and Warner’s book are:

  1. Waste Prevention
  2. Atom Economy
  3. Less Hazardous Chemical Syntheses
  4. Designing Safer Chemicals
  5. Safer Solvents and Auxiliaries
  6. Design for Energy Efficiency
  7. Use of Renewable Feedstocks
  8. Reduce Derivatives
  9. Catalysis
  10. Design for Degradation
  11. Real-time analysis for Pollution Prevention
  12. Safer Chemistry for Accident Prevention

Green Chemistry in Industry

Now that sustainability is on everybody’s top-of-mind, Green Chemistry is more important than ever. Just think about the amount of industries that rely on chemistry and whose activity has a great impact on the environment: pharma, agriculture, colorants, materials, consumer products... to name a few. 

This in part is due to the clear increase in awareness about environmental pollution. Especially since the last decades, people are becoming aware that we, as humans, are stressing the planet’s finite resources, and acknowledging that our consumption and waste have to go somewhere. And the current COVID crisis has consolidated this feeling. Just to mention some facts, there is fair evidence about:

If you watch the news, you might have noticed that some institutions are working non-stop to keep this issue present:

And special laws and regulations are being developed to promote more environmentally friendly, sustainable production processes and industries: REACH normative in European Union, ISO 14001, to name some of them.

In parallel, consumers are concerned about the impact the products they buy have in the environment and in their own bodies. Multiple initiatives inviting consumers to choose more “consciously” are nowadays on the front line, and they are demanding products that are respectful in the whole production chain: from manufacturing to recyclability. 

Having said all this, perhaps you are not very sure yet about the difference between green chemistry and general chemistry. The best way to describe it is that Green Chemistry’s main goal is to achieve the same or equivalent chemical reactions with a decrease in environmental damage.

And how is this accomplished?

Some techniques that are used for this aim include:

  • Catalysis: as mentioned in our first blog post, catalysis is the process of increasing a chemical reaction’s rate by the addition of an element denominated catalyst (like enzymes!), that is not consumed during the reaction and therefore can act repeatedly.
  • Synthetic biology: by applying engineering principles, the goal is to redesign and create new biological systems with the aim of providing novel solutions. Examples of this could be the creation of lab-grown meat, synthetic insulin or biofuels produced by algae.
  • Chemical synthesis: as the Nature journal definition says, chemical synthesis is “the process by which one or more chemical reactions are performed with the aim of converting a reactant or starting material into a product or multiple products”.

Why are industrial enzymes an example of Green Chemistry?

Maybe you are still wondering how green chemistry can help decrease pollution.

Like we mentioned earlier, Green Chemistry focuses on sustainability by looking for ways of preventing pollution, hazardous activity and resource waste. That’s why the use of industrial enzymes is such a sought-after solution for many companies who want to shift to greener production processes.

As biocatalysts, enzymes have a set of properties more beneficial than their non-enzymatic counterparts:

  • They are highly selective and specific, which allows chemists to have more control over their desired results.
  • They are effective under mild temperatures, which means significant energy savings.
  • They do not generate toxic waste.

As you can see, enzymes are pretty powerful! The main problem is adapting these enzymes to an industrial setting, which usually means tweaking the structure of an already existing enzyme to give it new features and make it work under certain conditions.That’s why at Zymvol we work to expand the use of green chemistry by creating custom-made enzymes for different industries. With some time and effort, we can make the world become a little bit greener.



American Chemical Society. Green Chemistry History. https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/greenchemistry/what-is-green-chemistry/history-of-green-chemistry.html 

CompoundChem (September 24, 2015). The Twelve Principles of Green Chemistry: What it is & Why it Matters. https://www.compoundchem.com/2015/09/24/green-chemistry/

Nature. Chemical Synthesis. https://www.nature.com/subjects/synthesis 

European Environment Agency (March 25, 2021) Synthetic biology and the environment. https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/synthetic-biology-and-the-environment 

Aatresh, A.; Cumbers, J. (September 22, 2019) Can Synthetic Biology Make Insulin Faster, Better and Cheaper?. Synbiobeta. https://synbiobeta.com/can-synthetic-biology-make-insulin-faster-better-and-cheaper/ 

Straathof, A.J.J.; Adlercreutz, P. (2000). Applied Biocatalysis (2nd Ed.). CRC Press.

All you need to know about enzymes: biocatalysts for a greener future

If you’ve followed us for a while, you may already know that at ZYMVOL we work primarily with enzymes, designing and optimizing them through computer simulations. Enzymes are applied pretty much everywhere: from food products, cosmetics, in the synthesis of pharmaceutical products, and -as the natural biomolecules they are- even the inside of your own body.

But despite the key importance of these molecules in our daily lives, not many people know what they do! That’s why in this post we want to break down some of the main points regarding enzymes, its industrial uses and why they are the key to a greener, more sustainable chemical industry.

What are enzymes?

Enzymes are proteins naturally found in living organisms. They work as biocatalysts, which means they help “catalyze” or accelerate chemical processes. Instead of waiting hours or even days for the reaction to be completed, enzymes have the power to speed it up and produce many reactions in less than a second!

Take for example the lactase enzyme. When we drink milk, there’s a protein whose sole purpose is to break down lactose so we can digest it better. However, people who are lactose intolerant don’t have that enzyme, or simply  don’t have enough of it, so they have a harder time digesting it (and suffer the consequences of it).

What does an enzyme look like?

There are around 20 different types of amino acids in Nature, and they are crucial in defining an enzyme’s characteristics. An enzyme is made up of a sequence of amino acids, varying greatly on number. Some may just have 50 amino acids, some may have more than 200.

Here, the variability is enormous: proteins can have different lengths, and can be formed only by some of the around 20 available amino acids. That’s why In Nature, there are millions of different proteins, each one with a particular amino acid sequence.

Also, they tend to fold into themselves, that’s why you’ll usually see images of enzymes represented like this:


However, the most important thing to know is that an enzyme’s amino acid sequence defines its shape. And its shape determines its function.

How does biocatalysis work?

As we mentioned previously, enzymes’ function is to catalyze chemical reactions. A catalyst is a molecule that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without being consumed by the reaction.

Enzymes catalyze all reactions that take place in living organisms, and these reactions can be of different types, like synthesis or degradation of products, among others.

To understand the process better, take a look at the following image, which represents the most accepted model of enzyme catalysis, the Induced Fit model, representing a synthesis reaction (formation of a product):

The enzyme-catalyzed reaction takes place in an inner region of the enzyme known as “active site”. The molecule that is bound in the active site is the “substrate”. Active sites are very specific, and only react with very specific types of “substrates”.

The “substrate” interacts with the “active site”, forming a transient “enzyme-substrate complex” that becomes an “enzyme-product complex” once the chemical changes take place.

Even if initially the substrate doesn’t adhere perfectly to the active site, the enzyme is flexible enough to adapt to the substrate. When the reaction finishes, the formed product is released and the free enzyme can bond to another substrate, starting the process again.

Examples of enzymes in our daily lives

As mentioned before, enzymes play a very important role by accelerating chemical reactions happening in our bodies, like breaking down lactose.

But this is just one example of the millions of possibilities that exist. Besides very technical uses, scientists have also applied these bio-molecules in the industry to create all kinds of products. Nowadays, they can be found in:

  • Pharmaceutical.
  • Chemical.
  • Food.
  • Animal Feed.
  • Cosmetics.
  • Cleaning.
  • Textile.
  • Recycling.
  • Pulp and paper products.
  • Flavors and Fragrances.

Industrial applications of enzymes

There’s a long history of enzymes being used to elaborate certain goods (for example, with alcohol fermentation) and, in the 20th century, they started to become more present in various industries. However, not all natural enzymes are valid for the overwhelming amount of different and highly specific chemical processes that take place in the current market.

Global trends on consumer needs and social change push companies to improve their products in different aspects, like  composition,  performance  or  manufacturing, while implementing sustainable production processes and reducing costs.

Therefore, protein engineering and enzyme improvement has gained popularity for companies who want to maintain their competitiveness, while also transforming their production to comply with green chemistry standards.

Some of the most popular industrial enzymes include:

  • Alcohol Dehydrogenases. Those that can reduce aldehydes into primary alcohols and ketones into secondary alcohols.
  • Oxidative Enzymes and Oxidoreductases. Those that cause or accelerate an oxidation reaction.
  • Lipases. Those that help disaggregate fat through hydrolysis.

Why enzymes are key for a sustainable future

There’s no denying that one of the biggest challenges the world faces nowadays is tackling climate change, which many environmental experts predict will have terrible consequences in the following decades. It’s no wonder that in 2015, the UN set a list of Sustainable Development Goals, with goals specifically focused on Climate related issues and Responsible Production.

What many people don’t know is that the use of enzymes in an industrial level can make a big difference in the way companies operate, and, therefore, have a significant and positive impact on the environment.

Why is that? Some advantages of using enzymes include:

  • Mild reaction conditions: enzymes usually do not require harsh working conditions such as high temperatures or use of solvents or other hazardous auxiliary chemicals.
  • Eco-friendliness: enzymes can substitute organic catalysts that require heavy metals that eventually are released to the environment.
  • Speed: enzymes are able to carry out chemical reactions in a extremely fast way
  • Efficiency: with proper reaction conditions, enzymes are able to process all present substrate and convert it into desired product
  • High product selectivity: enzymes are able to react with specific, targeted molecules, even in complex mixtures
  • Savings: with the advantages commented above, companies can save resources

Moreover, and according to the OECD, the potential of climate change mitigation coming from biotechnology processes and biobased products (in which improved enzymes applied to the chemical sector are included) “ranges from between 1 billion and 2.5 billion tons CO2 equivalent per year by 2030”.

Enzymes implemented as industrial biocatalysts are paving the way for a green chemistry revolution. As more industries start to embrace their use, we can get closer to reaching a true bioeconomy.



Heckmann, C. M.; Paradisi, F. (2020). Looking Back: A Short History of the Discovery of Enzymes and How They Became Powerful Chemical Tools. ChemCatChem, 12(24), 6082-6102.

Lehninger Principles of Biochemistry, 5th Edition. D.L Nelson and M.M Cox (2008)

Neitzel, J. J. (2010) Enzyme Catalysis: The Serine Proteases . Nature Education 3(9):21

Nature Education eBooks chapters Essentials of Cell Biology, Unit 2.4 and Cell Biology for Seminars, Unit 2.4  © 2014 Nature Education https://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/protein-structure-14122136/

OECD.(2011). Industrial Biotechnology and Climate Change. Opportunities and Challenges. http://www.oecd.org/science/emerging-tech/49024032.pdf

Phillips, Rob; Milo, Ron; How many reactions do enzymes carry out each second? Cell Biology by the Numbers. http://book.bionumbers.org/how-many-reactions-do-enzymes-carry-out-each-second/