The friendlier side of CO2

Queen’s Jessop Group takes on the challenge of greening up the oil industries through switchable surfactants

In 2003
In 2003

There’s nothing more useless than theoretical green chemistry, said Philip Jessop, a Queen’s chemistry professor.

Jessop spearheads the Jessop Group, which works to help industries reduce their negative effects on the environment and is focused on chemical manufacturing and transportation sectors.

Jessop—whose group includes 10 graduate students, an exchange student, a post-doctoral student and a full-time employee—did his PhD on oil chemistry and has worked with Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ryoji Noyori.

In 2003 he was named the Canada Research Chair in Green Chemistry, and in May his work on “switchable surfactants” was featured in Canadian Chemical News as one of the top 20 Canadian chemistry discoveries of the last century.

“I was floored,” he said of the honour, for which he was lauded along with a number of Nobel Prize-winning researchers. “When you do get some recognition like this … [it’s] really nice.”

This newly devised green chemistry is a solution to one of the oil industry’s biggest problems—separating chemicals—while remaining cost-effective.

A surfactant is a surface active agent which is used to separate difficult mixtures. Since a number of industrial processes use emulsions—mixtures of two liquids that are distributed evenly throughout the other—switchable surfactants would be useful during the extraction of oil, cleaning spills, degreasing metal equipment and the manufacturing of plastics because they would benefit the environment by allowing emulsions to be separated, thus minimizing waste.

Jessop’s study addresses the difficulty of separating oil and water mixtures, while trying to remain cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

Of the three known switchable surfactants, one is expensive, another is toxic and the third can only be activated by light which is problematic when it comes to opaque emulsions.

Jessop said a “switchable surfactant” is a compound that acts like soap and can change its properties when alternatively exposed to carbon dioxide and nitrogen, making it possible to re-use the same solvent for multiple steps in a chemical process.

He said the volume of waste comes down to the number of steps required in a manufacturing process, each of which usually requires a different solvent. In the pharmaceutical industry, for example, a single gram of cold medicine can produce up to 16 kilograms of waste.

Jessop and his group use balloons from the dollar store to bubble carbon dioxide (CO2) and convert it to its “On” form, allowing the oil and water to mix. To persuade them to separate, they bubble hydrogen dioxide through the mixture.

The Jessop Group surfactant does not require metal, acid or light and is completely reversible. CO2 and air were chosen because they’re cost-effective, non-toxic and environmentally friendly.

“The ironic bit of the whole thing is that everybody loves to hate CO2 … but I think CO2 is … the key to solving some of the energy problems, at least on a small scale,” Jessop said. “This isn’t going to solve global warming, but CO2 could help the environment if we use it in interesting ways like this.”

Jessop said there’s a large gap between research and the commercialization stage in green chemistry. But it’s relatively easy to get government funding for research in areas such as transportation and clean technology.

“When the politicians make decisions, they can see there’s a tangible benefit to Canada,” he said. “Right now, the most important thing is getting ideas into the practical sphere. If you develop all sorts of concepts and nobody ever uses them, the environment is not benefiting. … The only way we’re going to help the environment doing green research is if it actually gets adopted by industry.”

Parteq Innovations, a Queen’s-owned commercialization company, is working on moving Jessop’s research into industrial application.

Rui Resendes, Parteq director of commercial development in chemistry and materials science, said the company has been working with Jessop since 2005.

Resendes said switchable surfactants probably won’t be on the market for at least five years.

Parteq is trying to establish a national centre for commercializing green technologies—to be known as the Green Chemistry Commercialization Centre—which will help answer questions posed by industries regarding green technologies. If it gets funding, the centre will be developed at the Innovation Park at Queen’s with Jessop as the technical director, Resendes said.

“We need to get to a point where we need to transfer the activities … into the potential receptors, into the industrial partners’ research labs.”

To find out more about Phillip Jessop and his research, check out to view his profile.

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