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MHS Library | How can chemical principles be applied to create a more sustainable future?

Topics for the Research Task to answer the question:
How can chemical principles be applied to create a more sustainable future?

Investigation topic 1: Endangered elements in the periodic table

Today’s chemists are involved in many branches of chemistry, covering all 118 elements in the periodic table. Some of these elements are now considered to be critical and endangered, particularly due to the prevalence of modern technologies that rely on many different scarce minerals. It has been estimated that 44 elements will soon be, or are already, facing supply limitations, making a future of continuing technological advancement uncertain.



· Which chemicals are used in the manufacture of fireworks, what is the environmental impact of the combustion of these chemicals to produce the colourful effects seen in fireworks displays, and what alternatives are available?


· Based on their usefulness for society, how would you compare the value of lanthanoids and actinoids with the value of other metal groups in the periodic table?


· Why is helium classified as a critical and endangered element, and how can it be saved given that its atmospheric recovery is almost impossible?


· How is indium mined and used in the manufacture of products such as LCD screen televisions and computer monitors, mobile phones or photovoltaic panels, and what alternatives are available if indium becomes scarce?


· How do the properties of the metalloids (such as germanium, antimony, tellurium) differ so much to their neighbours on the periodic table, and how have these properties made them highly important for society and consequentially scarce in supply?


· How are precious metals from electronic waste (e-waste) recycled and what are the environmental and economic benefits of these recovery processes?

Investigation topic 2: Producing and using ‘greener’ polymers

Both natural and synthetic polymers play an important role in everyday life. The cells in animals and plants are built of, and metabolise, natural polymers. Proteins and carbohydrates in our food are both polymers. Synthetic polymers are used for a myriad of purposes in everyday life but may present challenges in terms of the by-products resulting from their manufacture or breakdown, and their persistence in the environment. The sustainability of polymers can be considered in terms of whether these plastics can be avoided by using different products or activities, reduced through design, or replaced by different materials.



What are plant-based biopolymers and what are the impacts of their production on the environment?


· How do biodegradable and degradable polymers, compostable polymers and recyclable polymers differ in structure, production and environmental impacts?


· What is the difference between micropolymers and nanopolymers, and how are used plastic materials and litter managed and repurposed?


· Is the recycling of packaging products containing aluminium more sustainable than LDPE polymer-based packaging products?


· Why is the sale of plastic water bottles and single-use plastics banned in many countries?


· How do animal proteins compare with non-animal proteins for different applications, such as meat substitutes and non-animal leather?


· How do the chemical structures of elastomers differ from the structures of thermosetting and thermoplastic polymers, and what are the implications of the production of elastomers for society?


· What impact does the vulcanisation of rubber have on the environment and the communities where rubber is sourced and produced?


· What are the risks and benefits to the environment of the manufacturing, production and application of synthetic fibres for the textile industry (for example, synthetic grass, active wear, shoes and single-use plastics such as takeaway cups, containers, and electrical and electronic products such as mobile phone cords and USB flash drives)?

Investigation topic 3: The chemistry of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ practices

Throughout history, people all over the world have hypothesised, experimented, made empirical observations, gathered evidence, recognised patterns, verified through repetition, and made inferences and predictions to help them to make sense of the world around them and their place within it. Recent research and discussion have confirmed many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups use the environment and its resources to solve the challenges they face in the different Australian climates in ways that are more sustainable than similar materials produced in Western society. Their solutions can be explained by a variety of organic and non-organic chemical processes.



Which plants are important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for their medicinal properties, how are the plants processed before they are used, and what are the active ingredients (for example, the terpineols, cineoles and pinenes as the active constituents of tea trees and eucalyptus resin)?


· What are the chemical processes that occur when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples detoxify poisonous food items: for example, the preparation of nardoo as a food source by heating, and the detoxification of cycad seeds through the removal of cycasins?


· How do Aboriginal and Torres Islander peoples utilise animal fats, calcination and plant pigments to vary the properties of the paints they make, and how does this compare to Western paint production processes and materials?


· How do binders and fixatives work to allow Aboriginal and Torres Islander peoples’ paintings to be preserved for thousands of years?


· How do Aboriginal and Torres Islander peoples’ glue formulations parallel the use of modern epoxy resins, and how sustainable are the chemical processes involved in producing these materials?


· How are plant-based toxins such as saponins used in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ fishing practices, and how is this similar to other First Nation Peoples’ fishing practices around the world?


· Kakadu plums have long been a component of Aboriginal and Torres Islander Peoples diets. What active ingredients do they contain that may make them a ‘super food’?

Investigation topic 4: The sustainability of a commercial product or material

In Australia, new materials that are useful for society tend to be produced through a linear economy in which products are purchased, used and then thrown away. Increasingly, manufacturing companies are moving towards a circular economy, which seeks to reduce the environmental impacts of production and consumption while enabling economic growth through more productive use of natural resources and creation of less waste.



What is ‘green steel’ and what are the implications of its production for human health and the environment?


· Research a metal mined in Australia: for example, gold, copper or lithium. How is the metal processed and what are its useful properties? To what extent has the metal production and use moved towards a circular economy over the last decade? What innovations have led to the production of the metal being more sustainable over time?


· Select a commercial product that is available in different formulations: for example, vinegar (fermented, synthetic); salt (river salt, sea salt, iodised salt, Himalayan salt); cleaning products (soaps and detergents); oil (fish oil, coconut oil, olive oil); or milk (whole milk, skim milk, low-fat milk, A2 milk, plant milks such as almond, soy and coconut). What ingredients are in the product? How do the ingredients compare in the different product formulations? How is the product made? To what extent does the production of the product involve a linear economy or a circular economy? How does the production and use of the product impact human health and the environment?


· Select a product whose composition has changed over time: for example, hair comb (tortoiseshell to polymer); dental fillings (from silver amalgam and gold to porcelain and composite resin fillings); contact lenses (glass to polymers); paints (lead-based to oil-based and water-based); and tennis racquet strings (from cat gut to nylon and polyester). How have the properties and efficacies of the products changed over time? To what extent have the manufacturing processes become ‘greener’?


· Examine the life cycle of a new product or material: for example, unbreakable glass inspired by seashells; new nanomaterials for the treatment of skin infections; and ultra-thin self-healing polymers to make water-resistant coatings. What is the relationship between the properties, structure and the nature and strength of the chemical bonding in the product or material? What are the raw materials used to make the product or material? How is the product or material manufactured? How are the by-products of production treated and managed? Is the product recyclable? Can any wastes during production or at the end of the product’s use be repurposed into a useful product or material?