A new nanotech catalyst that offers industry an environmentally benign way to reduce toxic heavy metals from the chemical process through simple magnetic nanoparticles has earned McGill University researchers Chao-Jun Li, Audrey Moores and their colleagues a spot on Quebec Science’s list of the Top 10 discoveries of 2010.
The magazine, which published the list in its February issue, invites readers to vote by February 25 for the top discovery of 2010 at www.cybersciences.com.
Catalysts are substances used to facilitate and drive chemical reactions. Although chemists have long been aware of the ecological and economic effects of traditional chemical catalysts and do attempt to reuse their materials, it is generally difficult to separate the catalyzing chemicals from the finished product. The team’s discovery does away with this chemical process altogether.
Li, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Canada Research Chair in Organic/Green Chemistry, neatly describes the new catalyst as a way to “use a magnet and pull them out!” The technology is known as nanomagnetics and involves nanoparticles of a simple iron magnet. Nanoparticles are sized between 1 and 100 nanometres (a strand of hair is about 80,000 nanometres wide). The catalyst itself is chemically benign and can be efficiently recycled. In terms of practical applications, their method can already be used to generate the reactions that are required for example in pharmaceutical research, and could in the future be used to achieve reactions necessary for research in other industries and fields. The discovery was published in Highlights in Chemical Science in January 18, 2010, in an article authored by Li, Moores, Tieqiang Zeng, Wen-Wen Chen, Ciprian M. Cirtiu, and Gonghua Song.
Li is known as one of the world’s pioneers in Green Chemistry, an entirely new approach to the science that tries to avoid the use of toxic, petrochemical-based solvents in favour of basic substances. More than 97 per cent of all products we use involves one or more chemical reactions. The future of not only the trillion-dollar chemical industry, but also the overall economy and the health of ecosystems and populations around the world rests on our ability to find sustainable solutions to chemical use. With 25 key researchers, 117 graduate students and more than 15 postdoctoral fellows working at ways to reduce the toxicity of chemical processes, McGill is a recognized global leader in the field. The University’s pioneering work in Green Chemistry dates back to the 1960s, when phrases such as “chemicals from renewable resources” and “non-polluting chemicals” were used.
Indeed, Green Chemistry was a research priority at McGill even before the concept had an academic identity.