Ionic solvents developed by engineers and scientists at the Queen's University Ionic Liquid Laboratories (QUILL) Research Center, Belfast, U.K., have been voted the most important British innovation of the 21st century.
QUILL fought off stiff competition from 11 other innovations to win. The award is part of the London Science Museum's initiative on great British past and future innovations. Event sponsors included Engineering U.K., The Royal Society, British Science Association, Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) and the U.K. government's Department for Business Innovation & Skills. (For details on the winner of an RAE-sponsored short video competition, see "Short Videos Promote Engineering")
Set up in 1999, QUILL is an industry/university cooperative research center (I/UCRC) — only the second in Europe to be based on the U.S. National Science Foundation I/UCRC model — and is now a world leader in the creation of ionic liquids. Key industry partners today include BASF, Chevron, Invista, Merck, Petronas, Proctor & Gamble, Shell, UOP, Givaudan, Sachem and KOEI Chemicals.
The Belfast team of nearly 100 scientists and engineers is exploring the potential of ionic liquids, which are salts that remain liquid at room temperature and don't form vapors. According to QUILL, these "super solvents" can serve as non-polluting alternatives to conventional solvents and are revolutionizing chemical processes by offering a more environmentally friendly solution than traditional methods.
Petronas already is using the technology in its plants in Malaysia to remove mercury from natural gas feeds. The process, developed as a joint collaboration between Petronas Research and QUILL, incorporates two key aspects: the custom design of ionic liquids with a dual functionality to oxidize and capture mercury; and impregnation of the ionic liquids on an inert porous support as solid-supported ionic liquids (SSILs). This allows them to be used directly in existing mercury removal units without requiring any changes to process operation, or additional costs associated with plant modification.
The efficiency of the SSIL has been compared with commercial sulfur-impregnated activated carbons, and up to five-fold increases in bed lifetime have been observed.
A team led by professor Ken Seddon, co-director of QUILL, and John Holbrey also from QUILL, developed the Petronas mercury removal units, which each use 15 tonnes of supported ionic liquid.
Alongside separations, QUILL is also investigating a range of other applications for ionic liquids, including catalysis, electrochemistry, enzymology and biotransformations, materials chemistry, inorganic and nuclear chemistry, and materials chemistry.
In terms of chemical engineering, studies with ionic liquids have so far included: the Friedel-Crafts benzoylation of anisole; heat capacities and excess enthalpies of 1-ethyl-3-methylimidazolium-based ionic liquids; and the use of a rotating disc reactor to investigate the heterogeneously catalyzed oxidation of cinnamyl alcohol in toluene and ionic liquids.
Commenting on the innovation award, QUILL co-director professor Jim Swindall says: "This is fantastic news for QUILL and for the University. This vote confirms that Queen's work on ionic liquid chemistry will eventually have a bearing on most of our lives. The liquids dissolve almost everything, from elements such as sulfur and phosphorus (that traditionally require nasty solvents) to polymers, including biomass. They can even remove bacterial biofilms such as MRSA [Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus]… Others can be used as heat pumps, compression fluids, or lubricants — the list is limitless."
The award is only the latest in a number of accolades won by members of QUILL. This June, professor Chris Hardacre will receive the first-ever Andrew Medal by the Institution of Chemical Engineers, Rugby, U.K. (see, "Catalyst Researcher Wins Recognition"). Launched in 2012, the Andrew Medal is in memory of the late Syd Andrew, a distinguished professor in the field of heterogenous catalysis. Hardacre will be presented with the medal and deliver the inaugural Andrew lecture as part of the Chemical Engineering and Catalysis 2013 event in London on June 4. Hardacre also has been elected into the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, an organization dedicated to vigorously promoting excellence in scholarship in both the sciences and humanities. He's one of the youngest people to achieve membership.
Meanwhile, in 2012 QUILL's Geetha Srinivasan won one of four £15,000 ($23,000) L'Oreal-UNESCO UK and Ireland Fellowships for Women in Science awards for her work on ionic liquids enabling biomedical applications.
Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.