Green chemistry refers to a number of processes and practices that minimize the toxic or hazardous effects of chemicals in the environment, the lab, or the manufacturing plant. One way to go green is to cut down on the use of dangerous solvents in reactive processes, thereby reducing waste and improving lab safety. Though sometimes a less toxic catalyst or reagent can be employed from the outset, reused, or made inert eventually, another way to get a chemical reaction is to apply physical force instead. Called mechanochemistry, it involves the application of mechanical engineering to chemistry. Instead of adding a solvent, agitation is used to achieve chemical synthesis.
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Chemical and biomolecular engineering researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have recently achieved something truly impressive: they've managed to dramatically improve the process of methane catalysis, by a factor of 30, and using lower temperatures. What this could mean in terms of environmental protection and energy generation is nothing less than game-changing. Natural gas production is at an all-time high in the U.S. and will replace much of our dependence on oil and coal if we can burn it efficiently and without methane pollution. Methane is also a by-product of industries such as waste management, animal farming, and oil extraction (the iconic flame at the top of an oil well is methane being released from underground), where its containment is an ongoing challenge.