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As part of their mandate to develop the skills and knowledge of highly qualified personnel (HQP), BioFuelNet (BFN) recently began offering grants to graduate students in the network in order facilitate opportunities for training and collaboration with colleagues in Canada or internationally. The grant offered by BFN for HQP exchanges has allowed me to travel to Queen’s University, Belfast in Northern Ireland, for 2 months in order to work with the top chemist in the United Kingdom, Professor Ken Seddon.

Photo: Left; Valerie Orr (PhD Candidate University of Western Ontario) and right; Dr. Natalia Plechkova (Research Fellow with Ken Seddon at Queen’s University Belfast Ionic Liquid Research Centre)

Professor Seddon is an avid promoter of green chemistry and studies a group of unique compounds called ionic liquids (ILs). ILs are often called designer solvents because of our ability to vary the physical properties of the IL by pairing different cations and anions. Ionic liquids are very much like table salt, except that they are often liquid at room temperature or under 100°C, unlike tablet salt which only forms a liquid at temperatures above 800°C. As molten salts, they have unique properties which have given them promise as green solvents for use in environmentally friendly processes. Their promise is greatly due to their powerful solvent properties and their low volatility, meaning that unlike many organic solvents, they will not produce volatile organic compounds which contribute to global warming.

Of particular interest to bioconversion professionals are the ILs which are capable of dissolving cellulose or lignin like the one shown below. Cellulose is notorious for being difficult to dissolve. However, several ILs have been shown to dissolve significant amount of cellulose, allowing for functionalization in solution. Our interest in ILs in our BFN project is centered on this property. Microalgae are difficult to rupture using conventional methods due to the cellulose cell wall which surrounds them. There has been some indication in the literature that IL extraction of cellulose from microalgae also allows for the easy recovery of lipids used in biodiesel production. However, this field is only just emerging, meaning there are a lot of exciting opportunities for IL extraction of microalgae.

 

A common ionic liquid, 1-Butyl-3-methylimidazolium chloride or [BMIM]+[Cl]

As we are mainly focused on the application of ILs, upon hearing of the BFN opportunity for an HQP exchange, the idea to travel to the home of the world leading experts in ILs at the Queen’s University Ionic Liquid Laboratory (QUILL) in Belfast was born. This exchange has allowed me to receive training in the synthesis, characterization, and quantification of ILs by experts in the field. Furthermore, since many of the QUILL researchers are actively engaged in synthesizing novel ionic liquids, many ionic liquids which are not commercially available in Canada will be available for testing at QUILL.

QUILL is a research center within Queen’s University Belfast which combines academic research with government and industrial institutions in order to promote industrially relevant chemical processes and products. It is therefore a combination of both chemists and engineers who work in collaboration with many long-term industrial partners including Shell, Chevron, Merck, and P&G . This model is similar to the mandate of BioFuelNet which is to pair researchers and industry to solve one of our largest global concerns, the impact of a fossil fuel economy on the environment.

 

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