Case studies

Opening Up New Directions In Green Chemistry

Dr Gosia Swadzba-Kwasny (QUILL)

Dr Małgorzata ‘Gosia’ Swadzba-Kwasny is a new Queen’s University Research Fellow in an area for which the University is renowned – Green Chemistry. But she is not exactly a stranger to the institution or this field of research.

‘I used ionic liquids when working towards my Masters in Poland but wanted to learn more. So the place to go was Queen’s University Ionic Liquid Laboratories in Belfast.’

The first time she met Professor Ken Seddon, Director of QUILL, who later became her PhD supervisor, was in Austria at a conference. ‘I had contacted him about a summer internship. We met and had a discussion – mainly about science fiction – but he said: “Come and do a PhD with us“.’

And so she did. ‘I came in 2005, convinced I would leave after three years, but there were always new opportunities and so ten years later – I’m still here.’

Gosia’s PhD project, sponsored by BP, was on making engine oils using ionic liquids. ‘Naturally, it was strongly applied science. But I grew interested in more fundamental aspects.’

As she explains, in the solid state, molecules have very little movement, they ‘stay still’. But in complex liquids, there is a constant change – dynamic equilibrium – with bonds created and broken all the time.

‘Studying the structure of such systems is challenging but this knowledge is crucial in order to use them more efficiently. Ever since my PhD, I have enjoyed combining these two aspects: fundamental studies which then help to develop applications, especially those making industrial processes greener, more sustainable.’

After graduating in 2009, Gosia was offered a postdoctoral position and an open door to develop her own line of research. ‘It was really unusual to be given so much scientific freedom straight after my PhD and this is what made me stay. I started working with people like Dr Peter Nockemann, of the Innovative Molecular Materials Group, on the synthesis of inorganic materials, and with Dr John Holbrey on the fundamental aspects.’

In parallel, she led several industrial projects, first in collaboration with the oil giant Petronas, one of QUILL’s major partners, then with Evonik Industries, a German specialist chemical company.

‘I thought – ionic liquids have been around for decades. We should take what we have learned from this field, and develop beyond it, to access new classes of liquid materials.'

Building on the liquid structure studies, Gosia and her team designed two families of liquid catalysts. ‘One group is called liquid coordination complexes – cheaper, greener and easier to make than ionic liquids. The other group are liquid Lewis superacids – extremely powerful catalysts, also made from inexpensive components.’

With these new catalysts, two industrial projects were taken to a scale-up phase. ‘And I hope they will be developed beyond that.’

In her new role, Gosia works with complex liquids to address sustainability in different branches of industry. ‘I am looking at very different projects, from catalytic removal of sulfur from fuels, through limiting heavy metal emissions from the cement industry, to what is known as urban mining.

‘Industry is creating so much waste that it’s now perceived as a resource in its own right. Instead of using primary resources that we’re running out of, we are turning waste into value-added material.’ There is interdisciplinary and inter-departmental collaboration – for example with Professor Marios Soutsos from the Geopolymer Group in Civil Engineering.

‘What I like about Queen’s is that I’ve always been given a lot of opportunity to prove myself and develop. This Fellowship gives me academic independence and, with limited teaching and administrative responsibilities, I can really focus on strengthening my own scientific reputation.’