Degussa has acquired a stake in a company specialising in ionic liquids, an innovative technology that could provide a greener alternative to commonly used volatile organic solvents in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and petrochemicals.
Degussa's Creavis Technologies & Innovation subsidiary has purchased an interest in the Cologne, Germany-based start-up Solvent Innovation, which claims to be a leading supplier in the development, production and marketing of ionic liquid technology.
Ionic liquids are novel organic salts or salt mixtures with melting points below ambient temperature. Like classical molten salts, they conduct electricity but differ in that they take on liquid form at room temperature. This combination of characteristics makes them suitable for numerous technical application fields, both as solvents for chemical reactions and as electrolytes for electrochemical processes.
Unlike organic solvents, many ionic liquids do not evaporate or escape into the atmosphere easily. Another advantage of the liquids is that they can be recycled and reused as solvents many times, and they can be tailor-made to dissolve a broad range of substances.
Alfred Oberholz, who heads up R&D at Degussa, said: "The purpose of the strategic partnership that we have entered with Solvent Innovation is to obtain ionic liquids as a new product category for large scale production applications." The commercial potential for the technology is significant, given that the world market for volatile organic solvents in the pharma and petrochemical industries is currently estimated at around $6 billion (€5.23bn) a year.
A five-day symposium was held earlier this year - as part of the American Chemical Society's annual meeting - to explore the progress being made with the use of ionic liquids.
At the symposium, various applications of ionic liquids were discussed, including some with direct relevance to the drug industry. For example, oxidation of organic compounds to create epoxides is one of the most fundamental reactions in chemistry as these biologically reactive chemicals are widely used as pharmaceutical intermediates.
Although these reactions usually require organic solvents, Mahdi Abu-Omar of the University of California, Los Angeles, has developed a system that uses an ionic liquid solvent and hydrogen peroxide to create epoxides without generating waste. Even the metallic catalyst remains in the ionic liquid phase, so it can be recovered and recycled, he said.