Eco-friendly solvents: a new way to recycle Styrofoam, mine bitumen and extract natural oils from seeds, algae

My Clean Break column this week takes a look at a new Ontario company that was recently spun out of GreenCentre Canada, a green chemistry incubator located at Queen’s University in Kingston. The company, called Switchable Solutions, is trying to commercialize a new type of industrial solvent invented by Queen’s researchers. You can read the column for a more detailed technical explanation of how the solvent works, but basically this magical chemical prefers to mix with oil in one phase, but when you inject carbonated water into the mix the carbon dioxide reacts with the solvent and suddenly the solvent doesn’t like mixing with oil; instead, in this second phase, it prefers to mix with water. When you want to separate the solvent from water (i.e. to recycle the solvent so you can use it again) you simply bubble in regular air and the two fluids separate. Cool, eh?

So, why is this important? For one, the solvent isn’t volatile. All of this works at room temperature. Second, and related to the first point, no external heat source is required to trigger the different phases, so this is a low-energy process compared to what’s required to manipulate conventional industrial solvents. The applications, as you’ll read in the column, are many. You can use the eco-solvent to recycle Styrofoam and foam food containers. You can use it to efficiently separate the oils in soybeans, flax seeds, algae and similar sources used in the production of biofuels. The solvent is also great for use in the oil sands — i.e. instead of using huge amounts of natural gas to make steam or heat up water to remove bitumen from sands, the solvent can do it using no steam, meaning no natural gas. The solvents are also infinitely recycleable. And finally, the solvents are made from easily available commercial chemicals that are economical and can be purchased at scale.

Switchable Solutions is on to something good. It will be interesting to see the first commercial demonstration of this new line of solvent products.