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“Designer Solvents” Is World’s Top Chemistry Paper

Ionic liquids mean little to most people who are not involved in the field of higher chemistry. These new “designer solvents” have amazing properties with revolutionary applications in the development of clean technology for manufacturing processes, providing answers to tackle one of the primary sources of pollution.
Liquid knowledge: these “designer solvents” can tackle primary sources of pollution. Northern Ireland’s Queen’s University Ionic Liquids Laboratories (Quill) centre in Belfast is the world-leading research centre led by Professor Jim Swindall (right) and Professor Ken Seddon.
Liquid knowledge: these “designer solvents” can tackle primary sources of pollution. Northern Ireland’s Queen’s University Ionic Liquids Laboratories (Quill) centre in Belfast is the world-leading research centre led by Professor Jim Swindall (right) and Professor Ken Seddon.
By Richard Maino, London Press Service

One research academy in Northern Ireland is pioneering the exciting, green technology that has the potential to impact on the daily lives of everyone around the world.

The Queen’s University Ionic Liquids Laboratories (Quill) centre in Belfast creates these solvents that, it is claimed, will also improve working conditions for millions of people and significantly enhance job and wealth creation. Now, a research document on the solvent revolution by scientists at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) has been recognised with the honour of being the world’s number-one cited paper in chemistry - after it proved that a standard belief was wrong.

The research is called The Distillation And Volatility Of Ionic Liquids, and was first published in the renowned science journal Nature in 2006 by scientists from the Quill centre that was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 2006.

“With a huge rise in scientific interest in room-temperature ionic liquids - salts that are liquid below 100 degrees Celsius (C) - in recent years, the ground-breaking paper blew apart a major myth,” said a QUB spokesperson. “It illustrated that these liquids, previously regarded as involatile are, in fact, volatile. The paper also demonstrated that the liquid salts can be vaporised with no decomposition and recovered and purified by fractional distillation.”

The breakthrough follows on from a recent Quill paper in Nature journal - that made headlines around the globe - on the use of ionic liquids (liquids composed entirely of ions - electrically charged atoms or molecules) to deposit metal films for a lunar telescope in conjunction with the US space agency, Nasa.

What are ionic liquids and what have they to do with the environment?

Volatile organic solvents that damage the atmosphere are the normal media for the industrial synthesis of organic (petrochemical and pharmaceutical) products, with a current worldwide use and cost of about four billion pounds a year. Ionic liquids are proving to be excellent solvents for numerous chemical materials and good catalysts for a range of chemical processes. They are also potentially useful as materials for applications such as lubrication, rocket propulsion and the analysis of minerals and gems.

Speaking about Quill’s work, Professor Ken Seddon - regarded as the world’s leading expert in the field - said: “Ionic liquids act as solvents for a broad spectrum of chemical processes and can dissolve a wide range of materials, even rocks, coal and almost anything organic, amazingly well. Unlike conventional solvents though, they do not emit vapours.”

Professor Jim Swindall is the co-director of Quill and former director of the university’s environmental research initiative, Questor, that won a Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 1996. He explained further: “Put quite simply, they have remarkable properties which have tremendous applications in the development of clean technology for manufacturing processes. They are the basis of a whole new industrial technology.”

Speaking about future developments within Quill, Professor Seddon added: “Ten years ago I predicted that room-temperature ionic liquids would be the basis of a new cost-effective, industrial ‘green’ technology. Today, it is safe to say ionic liquids are revolutionising every area of chemistry and also starting to impinge in a big way on physics, biochemistry and even biology.

“The physical and biological sciences will never be the same again. Queen’s University will continue to strive to publish research such as that featured in our number-one cited paper, in order to pave the way for ground-breaking, new multi-disciplinary green technologies.”

Professor Seddon has also said: “It is absolutely vital for the future of mankind that we develop ways of tackling pollution. The potential of ionic liquids is immense. For example, one of the companies we have worked with, the German chemical giant BASF, reported an 80,000 times increase in productivity after introducing ionic liquids to one of their processes.”

Quill was founded in 1999 as an industrial consortium, with members from all sectors of the chemical industry. It was the first research centre in the world to focus on the development of ionic liquids. Research carried out between Queen’s University and individual companies, or by Quill, has generated more than 20 patent applications. Its 16 members are drawn from all sectors of the chemical industry and are located in eight countries and in four continents.

Quill is one of the largest and most active ionic-liquid research centres in the world, with a staff that includes a number of world-renowned experts in the field. The staff includes researchers and students from every continent, creating a truly international working environment (http://quill.qub.ac.uk/). Its main aim is to explore, develop and understand the role of these liquids as media for industrially relevant chemistry, and to provide all the physical and chemical engineering data needed to help design and operate them.

There are a large number of government-financed initiatives in the UK to advise, encourage and provide funding to companies in the environmental technologies sector. Programmes have proven highly successful in fostering relations between research organisations and industry, according to UK Trade & Investment, the leading government organisation created to support overseas businesses seeking to set up or expand in the UK. It can also help companies based in the UK to develop overseas.

There are more than 7,000 companies operating in the UK environmental technologies sector. These provide a wealth of specialist skills and services. The UK environmental industries sector is forecast to grow to nearly 34 billion US dollars by 2010, a rise of about 15 per cent since 1997. UK universities are increasingly placing more emphasis on environmental studies to meet the market demand for these technologies. That not only means many highly qualified graduates but also an ever-greater number of postgraduate research programmes in environmental sciences.

Crucially, these programmes do not operate in isolation; they work with public and private-sector organisations to provide an abundance of opportunities for specialist research. As a result, the UK is an ideal location for establishing R&D activities.