While ionic liquids have been in production for several decades, it is only since the opening of the Queen’s University Ionic Liquid Laboratories (QUILL) in 1999 that they have become one of the hottest areas of chemistry research.
Essentially liquid salts, the liquids can now be modelled initially on laboratory computers. Because the characteristics of each one can be selected from a huge menu of physical properties, the possible permutations are almost beyond imagination. In fact it is estimated there are one million simple ionic liquids.
Many though will never make it beyond the computer screen. Those that show potential however may well end up in the real world, purpose-made to perform specific tasks ranging from storing energy and gene therapies to food flavouring and nuclear waste processing.
Bringing order to that universe of possibilities is vital in orderto focus research on those liquids that show most promise and can be produced economically. That was one of the main goals of a recently completed five-year EPSRC project involving Head of School, Chris Hardacre.
"The knowledge gained through the project has already paid off handsomely for us. One ionic liquid process we developed for use in the development of gene therapies is now being commercialised through Merck GmBH. We have also won multi-million pound contracts from a leading oil and gas producer," says Chris.
Other significant commercial rewards gained as a result of the project include work for a fragrance house aimed at maximising the production yield of one of its key perfume ingredients.
"After holding a postdoctoral position at Cambridge University, I came to Queen's as a lecturer in 1995. That was before interest in ionic liquids really took off.
I didn't know much about the University back then but from my earliest days at Queen's, I have always been struck by how willing people were to doThe knowledge gained through the project has already paid off handsomely for us.... We have also won multimillion-pound contracts from a leading oil and gas producer interdisciplinary work.
Chemists were always eager to work with physicists and perhaps, more unusually for the time, with chemical engineers. Interdisciplinary collaboration is essential in the field of ionic liquids so that may help to explain why the University has become such a significant player since the opening of QUILL in the late 1990s.
Chemistry and chemical engineering is all about being able to control what is happening at the molecular level. Applying those disciplines to ionic liquids is fascinating work. It is still a very young research area but it is one in which Queen's now leads the world."
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