Published 2019-11-06

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Munthe’s aim: to make Sweden world-leading in green chemistry

The Mistra SafeChem programme will take a holistic approach to chemicals. By working on new synthesis processes and improved risk-assessment tools, the scientists hope that it will be possible to predict and avoid risks already in a design phase.
‘The vision is to support the development of a green, sustainable chemical industry in Sweden, with an overall objective of reducing the exposure of people, animals and nature to hazardous substances,’ says Programme Director John Munthe.

In society, there is a clear mistrust of chemicals, partly with good reason. There are frequent reports of synthetic substances that create problems — fire-fighting products containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) being a well-known example — and a vast number of chemicals on the market. Consequently, there is general concern about the risks of chemicals.

‘At the same time, the perception that chemicals are a general problem is a simplification of reality. For us chemists, all substances, both natural and synthetic, are chemicals. So chemicals contain substances indispensable to humans but also those useful in moderate, limited quantities and those that shouldn’t be dispersed in society and nature at all,’ says John Munthe, Programme Director of Mistra’s new major programme Mistra SafeChem.

The negative view of chemistry is due partly to chemists themselves and the research carried out, he believes.

‘Research on chemicals has been largely conducted in a compartmentalised way. I believe strongly in research, dialogue and collaboration between, on the one hand, environmental chemists and toxicologists, who work mainly on the presence and potential risks of chemicals, and on the other hand industrial chemists, who develop new substances for various purposes. That way, we can develop research that both supports and develops the public benefits that chemistry delivers and minimises the risks of harmful exposure and effects.’

This does not mean that Munthe thinks we should turn a blind eye to chemistry’s downside. On the contrary, his thesis (completed in 1992) was about mercury, how it spreads in the environment and its potential impact on humans and the environment. This was highly specific research that later resulted in documentation for measures and new regulations. After that, in prolonged fieldwork to investigate the presence of various pollutants, he analysed their effects on the environment, and what can be done about the problems found.

To put chemistry and chemicals into a broader context, Munthe wants to show what they do across the board, and explain why we use chemicals at all. To get there, more scientists should assume a more educational role.

‘While we’re raising awareness of the public benefits of chemistry, we must continue our efforts to minimise the risks. That’s especially because the number of new chemicals being introduced on the market is now increasing faster than ever. Bringing about a more nuanced discussion about risks and benefits is a challenge we must take on in Mistra SafeChem.’

Munthe has worked at IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute for 27 years. Initially, he was a scientist with one foot in the field; now he is a research manager whose main task is tackling strategic issues. Over the years, he has worked closely with a number of other organisations, notably Mistra.

‘I was already active in ASTA [International and national abatement strategies for transboundary air pollution]’, one of the first programmes funded by Mistra. Now, apart from Mistra SafeChem, I’m also involved in Mistra Digital Forest.’

Although the Mistra SafeChem programme has not yet formally begun, it is currently taking up much of Munthe’s time. Now he is busy signing agreements and building a collaboration platform that includes all the partners.

‘This is a very large-scale programme that I hope will roll on for eight years. For us to be able to fully exploit the opportunity we’ve been given, it’s important to guide working methods and create good collaboration opportunities with all the scientists and companies that are involved from the start. That work will now soon be complete, and we expect to get the programme going before New Year, with the research starting at the beginning of next year.’

The programme will address research challenges, be relevant to industry and offer solutions. Success requires researchers in academia and at institutes to engage in a close dialogue with industry — no simple challenge.

‘The vision is that we’ll boost interest in our issues, and that our work will have an impact both in Sweden and internationally. Granted, there are more research centres focusing on green chemistry. But our size, the research group we’ve managed to assemble and the participation of several major industrial companies give us all the conditions we need to succeed. Now it’s up to us to deliver results.’

Work in the programme will be organised in six work packages. One important area involves developing new methods to better assess the various risks of chemicals. This may be about their individual and collective impact on the environment and people throughout their life cycle. The aim is also to propose ways of replacing hazardous chemicals and processes.

Another important area will be development of new synthetic methods based on enzymatic catalysis. If the scientists were successful, it would be possible to convert biobased raw materials into useful and less harmful chemicals, while minimising problematic process chemicals, residual products and waste.

Policy issues will be a minor part of the programme, at least for the coming four-year period. On the other hand, if the programme is extended for a further four years, as is customary for a Mistra programme, these will be among the more important issues to address.

‘It’s very stimulating to be part of such a large initiative, and the hope is that the programme will generate even more research through a number of new partners who want to join in and help out. Together, we’ll make sure Sweden becomes an important player in green chemistry.’

Being Head of Research at IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute and Programme Director of Mistra SafeChem makes for a heavy workload, since both jobs are full-time commitments. Munthe therefore thinks he should initially just be programme director, and then hand over the responsibility to someone else.

‘Jointly with all the parties, we need to establish programme management that’s stable in the long term, so that we ensure continuity and commitment. But that doesn’t mean I’ll drop my commitment to the programme. This is too big, fun and important for me to want to step down entirely.’


About John Munthe

Age: 59 years.
Jobs: Head of Research at IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute and Programme Director of Mistra SafeChem.
Family: wife, three children and two grandchildren.
Leisure: reads a lot, or listens to music, when he’s not tending the vegetables at the allotment, or helping with his wife’s beehives. Like so many other chemists, he is also fond of cooking.

FACTS: Mistra SafeChem — Mistra’s largest programme to date

Purpose: to use green chemistry to develop new chemicals, and minimise health and environmental impacts right from the design stage.

Participating organisations: IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute, Stockholm University (SU), Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE), KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Technical University of Denmark (DTU), AstraZeneca, Perstorp, Nouryon (formerly AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals) and several other companies.

Budget: SEK 100 million, of which Mistra will provide SEK 70m.

Programme period: 2020–23.

Behind Mistra SafeChem is a research consortium that, besides IVL| , includes SU, KTH and DTU. RISE is also part of the consortium — in the form of the Centre for Toxicological Sciences, which was formed in the wake of AstraZeneca closing its premises in Södertälje, first as the university consortium Swetox and now as part of RISE. Participants from the Swedish chemical industry include AstraZeneca, Perstorp and Nouryon.