Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Forget the God Particle, now science world is stuck on Belfast boffins' super solvent

Bottled genius: QUB’s Professor Ken Seddon and Professor Jim Swindall
Bottled genius: QUB’s Professor Ken Seddon and Professor Jim Swindall

Never mind the 'God Particle'... environmentally-friendly solvents invented in Belfast that can dissolve virtually anything have been named the Most Important British Innovation of the 21st Century.

The 'super solvents' developed by boffins at Queen's University have beaten 11 other ground-breaking British innovations to be named the discovery that will have the greatest impact in the coming century.

In the public vote – part of the Science Museum's initiative on great British innovations – ionic liquid chemistry even beat the historic discovery of the Higgs boson, which has revolutionised the world of physics.

The Belfast scientists' work also came in ahead of graphene, the lightest ever solid material, which is only one atom thick and has won its creators a Nobel Prize in Physics.

Until ionic liquids were discovered, there were only around 300 solvents to use in all chemical processes. Now the list is almost endless and includes a host of non-polluting 'designer solvents' created specifically to carry out a particular job, whether it is to dissolve coal, rocks, polymers or the MRSA superbug.

There has even been a paper on the potential of ionic liquids for use in embalming corpses.

A team of nearly 100 scientists at Queen's University Ionic Liquid Laboratories (QUILL) Research Centre is exploring the potential of these green solvents and Fortune 100 energy giant Petronas is already using the technology in its plants.

Professor Jim Swindall, co-director of QUILL at Queen's, said: "The liquids dissolve almost everything, from elements such as sulphur and phosphorus that traditionally require nasty solvents to polymers, including biomass.

"They can even remove bacterial biofilms such as MRSA. They are already being used in a process to remove mercury from natural gas by Petronas in Malaysia. Others can be used as heat pumps, compression fluids, or lubricants – the list is limitless."

The mercury removal unit, which uses 15 tons of ionic liquid to scrub mercury from natural gas plants where it can rot pipelines, was developed by a team led by Professor Ken Seddon, co-director of QUILL at Queen's, and Dr John Holbrey from QUILL.

They were listed last year as the number one and two chemists in the UK. Prof Seddon said: "We are delighted to win as this shines a very public spotlight on how a team of chemists can dramatically improve the quality of the environment for everyone.

"Being named the most important British innovation of the 21st Century is recognition of the high calibre of research being undertaken at QUILL and throughout the university."

Factfile

The shortlist of the 12 greatest new British innovations:

  • Discovery of the Higgs boson, opening the door to new physics
  • Eye gene therapy
  • Graphene, the thinnest material known
  •  Huygens spacecraft, the first probe to land in outer solar system
  •  iLimb, a versatile powered prosthetic hand
  •  Ionic liquid chemistry, solvents that hold the key to green chemistry
  •  Metamaterial, artificially produced materials with properties not necessarily found in nature
  •  Plastic electronics technology, for gadgets that are flexible, disposable and printable.
  •  Quantum dots, semiconductors with extraordinary properties
  • Raspberry Pi, cheap computer set to revolutionise programming
  •  SABRE engine, air-breathing rocket engine

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