Toward a greener chemistry

AUGUSTA DWYER, Special to The Globe and Mail

As a young graduate of the University of British Columbia’s doctoral program in chemistry, Philip Jessop’s first job was at Research Development Corp. in Japan. But when his boss, Ryoji Noyori, suggested he work on supercritical carbon dioxide, he says, “I had to go the library and look up what it was.”

Dr. Noyori went on to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry a few years later, in 2001. And Dr. Jessop, now a professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, went on to discover many useful applications, for both the economy and the environment, of this unusual substance.

A major focus of his prize-winning work over the years has involved its application with organic solvents, which are common in many industrial processes. Volatile and prone to explosion, they are not only hazardous when inhaled by workers, but they also pollute the air and create smog when they evaporate along with the material they’ve been used to clean up. They have caused several explosions in manufacturing facilities. “Volatile solvents are just nasty,” Dr. Jessop says.

However, he has found ways of using CO2 to replace solvents. The material or product that needs to be separated, like caffeine from a coffee bean, can then be removed without that distillation or evaporation process.

More recently, he has been working on “switchable solvents,” taking advantage of CO2’s ability to get a solvent to switch, or modify, its nature. “You can use one version of the solvent to dissolve something,” he explained, “then, when you want to get your product out of that solvent, you can use CO2 to make the solvent change. Take the CO2 away again and the solvent changes back, so you can recycle it.”

It was also in Japan where Dr. Jessop first discovered green chemistry, the study of more benign ways of doing chemical processes. “I’ve always been a lover of nature,” he says. “I am a wildlife photographer in my spare time. I got to realize that my career choice of chemistry could actually be used to help the environment. Chemists are wonderfully poised to help, or we can be greatly damaging to the environment as well.”

Along with his position at Queen’s, Dr. Jessop is also a technical director at GreenCentre Canada, a non-profit that its founders hope will eliminate the many roadblocks between academic innovations and their adoption into the world of business. “Taxpayers are paying professors across Canada to do the work that they hope will help the economy and the environment,” he points out. “Then, when we have something that might actually help, you can’t get it to market. It’s frustrating.”

GreenCentre takes those great ideas and turns them into viable business case studies. “We’re saying to business, ‘Here are all the things you need to convince you that it’s worth investing in,’” he said.

Now Dr. Jessop is turning his attention to water. “The latest thing we are really excited about is what we call switchable water,” he says. “Once you have used the water, it is contaminated, and very expensive and environmentally damaging to clean up.” Using CO2, he added, “our switchable water has a built-in method for triggering the kick-out of the organics.”

The irony that the same element causing global warming also has so many beneficial uses when recycled is not lost on him. “If we start scrubbing CO2 – and I sure hope we do because it is causing havoc – we can have a lot of CO2 on our hands. Why can’t we use that and make other things greener and economical? I think that’s a wonderful way of taking advantage of a rather grim situation. It’s the silver lining in the dark cloud.”

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