Stuart James had originally planned to become a professional musician. While his career path has taken him down a very different route into inorganic chemistry, he's still using his creative abilities to the full.
Solvents are considered essential in a huge variety of today's industrial processes. Unfortunately, many are extremely toxic and huge volumes of waste can be generated making them. Given the scale of their use, combined with the energy required to produce, transport and store them, it is therefore hardly surprising they have long been a major target for environmental campaigners.
Stuart is among a small but growing group of scientists who believe that one day it might just be possible to do away with many of them. And now, with the help of EPSRC funding, he and his team have succeeded in making a special type of polymer without the use of solvents for the first time.
"We've done this by inducing reactions mechanically, rather than by heating, to produce a particular kind of crystalline compound known as a metal- organic framework or MOF for short," says Stuart.
"We believe the type we have developed could be particularly suited for future applications in gas storage and purification systems.
"Usually, MOFs are formed at high temperatures using solvents; we've succeeded in producing them with neither, by placing the reactants directly together along with small metal balls inside what look like miniature cocktail shakers. The containers are then placed on a machine that moves them quickly from side to side to produce a slightly chaotic rotation.
"The reaction happens within minutes. Water and other byproducts are then removed, leaving the new polymer behind.
"It is highly unlikely that we will ever be able to do without solvents entirely, but we know there is an enormous amount of chemistry in this area that is simply not being attempted. The same method could be used to make many other similar types of material. It's possible it could even one day help improve pharmaceutical manufacturing processes."
Stuart explains that in some of those processes, solvents account for more than 80 percent of all materials used.
"Our objective now is to move this technique out of the laboratory to prove that it works cost effectively on a large scale in the real world.
"We are very close to obtaining a patent for this new process. We are also currently negotiating exclusive rights with a leading international company specialising in advanced materials technology. That is a very exciting prospect indeed."
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