GreenCentre Canada, a green chemistry incubator located at Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario has spun out a new company, called Switchable Solutions.  Switchable Solutions is trying to commercialize a new type of industrial solvent invented by the University’s researchers.

Switchable Solutions Logo. Click image for the largest view.

This is not your usual chemistry solvent.  Ready?  The new chemical mixes with oil in one phase, then when you inject carbonated water into the mix the carbon dioxide reacts with the solvent and presto, the solvent doesn’t like mixing with oil anymore. Now in the second phase, it prefers to mix with water. To separate the solvent from water for recycling the solvent, simply bubble in regular air and the two fluids separate. Way to easy.

Dominik Wechsler, chief product scientist at Switchable Solutions, says, “It’s all done at room temperature.”

Now if you’re trying to extract the oil from bitumen or other natural biomass or even from synthetic products, a lot of process heat is needed, which means lots of natural gas, coal or oil is used.  Getting to room temperature from the chills of Canada is much easier than getting to process heat like dry steam past 600º.

Dr. Philip Jessop GreenCentreCanada. Click image for the largest view.

Dr. Philip Jessop, the Queen’s university professor who discovered the chemicals explains calling them switchable hydrophilicity solvents.  That is to say the chemicals can be easily manipulated to become soluble in water or non-soluble in water depending on how much CO2 is introduced or taken away.

Solvents, many of which are toxic, often highly volatile chemicals create considerable environmental risks.  That would be why Jessop’s invention was named one of the Top 20 chemistry breakthroughs in Canada in the past 100 years.

In North America, the market for solvents is roughly $20 billion annually. Industry and people rely heavily on organic solvents in many industrial processes and applications.  The short familiar list includes using acetone to remove glue or fingernail polish, hexane, also a neurotoxin, is used to remove stains, dichloromethane is used to remove paint and carbon tetrachloride isn’t even available to consumers its so dangerous.

GreenCentreCanada Tour. Click image for the largest view.

For the most part solvents are used for separating oils from non-oily substances. In the controversial Canadian Oil Sands the main separation method is to burn huge quantities of natural gas to give the oil-laden sand a steam bath.  Producers are experimenting with volatile solvents such as butane as a way to remove the sticky bitumen from sand.  If these new phase change chemicals can work at scale major problems involving oil extraction in Canada will be laid to rest.

An unappetizing fact is producers use hexane to extract oils from soybeans, flax seeds and even algae.  Removing the hexane or many other solvents from the bio oil requires energy-intensive heating for distillation resulting in a some volume of the solvent escaping as vapor that is difficult to collect and can contribute to air pollution.

How the new chemical process works is simple.  Mix it with the bitumen or your biomass and it strips the oil free.  Add water to the dissolved potpourri of oil, sand or bio matter, introduce CO2 and the solvent mixes with the water instead, leaving a neat layer of oil on top to drain off.

Then to separate the solvent from the water, simply bubble in air. The water and solvent can then be used over and over again to remove oils from the other impurities. There’s less need to burn natural gas for process heat other than to get to room temperature and no need to create toxic tailing ponds, distillation facilities, or air purification systems.

Wechsler knows the Canadians are on to something big saying, “It’s pretty much a closed-loop system. At the moment we’re still doing lab experiments, but we’re looking for a partner in the oil sands community to move this product forward.”  Chances are he’ll get a very welcome meeting when the lab work shows how to build and run a pilot facility.

That’s not all.  The chemical also is a solvent for the Dow Chemical trademarked Styrofoam or common polystyrene.  This stuff is ubiquitous, and everywhere.  From food bottles and shopping bags to foam packing peanuts the whole world piles up tons of this light and still (think cubic kilometers) bulky material, mostly in landfills.

The switchable hydrophilicity solvents dissolve the polystyrene, after which a low-heat filtering process removes food residue and other solid contaminants.  What’s left behind is a pure polystyrene powder that can be turned into new products again.

If your sick of collecting other folks bags and bottles and other plastic junk littering the world, it looks now like recycling can work very well indeed on one of the handiest and problematic plastics in history.

This is great, great news.


1 Comment so far

  1. Benjamin Cole on April 12, 2011 4:49 PM

    Well, a couple of years back some guys at UT Arlington said they could make oil from bitumen, at $30-$45 a barrel.

    Jeez, what ever happens to these guys? Years later, they make the same claim.

    Seems to me a basic question is: Okay, can the process be commercialized, and how?

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