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Solving harmful solvents with ionic liquids

Professor Patricia Hunt, School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington. Photo: Supplied.

Professor Patricia Hunt from Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington aims to understand the structure of ionic liquids towards developing environmentally friendly alternatives to industrial solvents


Published on 3 Whiringa-ā-rangi November 2022

While, for many of us, hearing the word ‘solvent’ will make us think of paint thinner or building worksite cleaning products, solvents are any liquids used to dissolve other substances. Water is an example of a common solvent, dissolving and carrying molecules and ions within your body and within the environment. Solvents are ubiquitous and critical to making pharmaceuticals, recycling waste and various industrial chemical processes. Many solvents do invoke a high environmental cost, for instance when they are volatile, flammable, toxic, or when large quantities are required. Ionic liquids are novel materials, composed solely of charged particles, which represent an alternative to traditional solvents and their associated sustainability issues. Ionic liquids can be chemically designed for low environmental impact, stability, and improved solubility. However, to design ionic liquids for industrial applications, we need a deeper understanding of how their underlying chemical structure influences their properties.

Professor Patricia Hunt has received a Marsden Fund grant to unravel the structure within the complex bonding network of ionic liquids. She will lead a team of computational and experimental scientists to create new models that describe the links between the chemical structure of ionic liquids and their physical properties. They also aim to use quantum chemistry to generate new knowledge of the electronic structure and interactions of ionic liquids at the atomic level. Based on the insights obtained, they then plan to chemically design and make new ionic liquid materials.

Hunt and AI

Professor Hunt (left) and Associate Investigator Dr Cameron Weber (right; UOA). Photo: Supplied.

Ionic liquids have potential to be employed in, and create new, sustainable industries in Aotearoa. One example is the production of fibres such as viscose and rayon from cellulose, which currently requires toxic and corrosive chemicals to break up the wood pulp starting material. The novel ionic liquids developed in this project hold promise for replacing harmful industrial solvents used in Aotearoa and worldwide.