News Feature | September 26, 2014

New Study Breaks Ground On Switchable Solvents

By Sara Jerome,

A new study breaks ground on the separation of substances present in water. It may have implications for the development of sustainable technologies including more efficient water purification and desalination processes. 

The study in question puts a focus on switchable solvents, "a unique class of solvents that were developed to facilitate both reaction and subsequent product separation. Their 'built-in” separation ability for facile product recovery is paramount to achieving chemical processes that are both economically competitive and environmentally conscious," according to a paper published in the journal Chemical Science. 

Research into switchable solvents is still developing, and plenty remains to be uncovered. "For example, it would be very helpful to know the rate of the phase-separation process in switchable water systems, the optimal CO2 concentration, and the efficiency of nitrogenous bases for liquid-liquid phase separation," a report explained.

A new paper published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society manages to break ground in this arena. 

"A team of researchers including Gabriella Lestari and Milad Abolhasani, led by Professor Eugenia Kumacheva at the University of Toronto, have turned to a new tool called microfluidics to explore liquid-liquid phase separation in an efficient way. Although microfluidics strategies have previously been used to study CO2-related processes in liquid solvents, this is the first time that microfluidics has been applied to studies of liquid-liquid phase separation mediated by water switching," the report said. 

The upshot? "A wealth of information [discovered using microfluidics strategies could] facilitate the development of new additives for switchable solvents in green chemistry applications," the abstract said. "Green Chemistry is the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the generation of hazardous substances," according to the EPA. 

 Kumacheva explained that the work could help shed light on desalination. 

"This work could definitely help to develop and optimize switchable solvents for many important applications, such as desalination of water by forward osmosis or as an alternative for the salting out process in pharmaceutical applications," Kumacheva told "In addition, our microfluidic strategy could be adapted to study other phenomena induced by water switching, such as the synthesis and functionalization of nanoparticles."

The work could also have implications for other water purification strategies. 

"Applying the liquid-liquid phase separation process to different solutions could have a variety of applications, including...water purification. The results of this study could be used to characterize and improve the efficiency of these processes by facilitating the rapid exploration, development and optimization of new additives. Microfluidics strategies could be further extended to investigate the effects of temperatures, pressures, and compositions on water switching," the report said. 

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