New discovery a win for green chemistry

This recycling concept has existed since the early 90s, but Professor Friesen, a specialist in fluorine chemistry, has found a way to make it safer and more efficient by involving a special inert compound.

Metal catalysts have many applications in industry: from paints to plastics to pharmaceuticals. They are also useful in the production of fluorochemicals, whose unique molecular structure prevents them from mixing with water or oil, allowing regular materials to become impermeable to grease or water. They have practical implications in refrigeration, non-stick cookware and building materials.

The key to Professor Friesen's success is that he chose to work with the compound poly(hexafluoropropylene oxide) or poly(HFPO) a non-toxic, non-biocummulative fluorinated ether, an effective lubricant in extreme temperatures and harsh environment—from -100 to 360 oC. Through complex chemical experiments, he found a way to make the “non-sticky” poly(HFPO) backbone “stick” to the catalyst while allowing the reaction to occur. Through this process, the catalyst is removed from the product, removing toxicity and making it available for use again.

The eight-year project was made possible through collaboration with DuPont, one of the world's top research and development corporations, and with research assistance from select TWU chemistry students.

“The fluorous biphase process is extremely important because it significantly reduces energy consumption and business costs,” explains Friesen. “So I wanted to maintain this principle, but alter it so there would be no chance of a harmful byproduct remaining.”

Friesen explains the fluorous biphase process as functioning like the mythical Trojan Horse. The horse is the catalyst in the reaction and the soldiers hiding inside of it are the metal. Once the horse gets past the gate, the metal is released to do the work in the reaction. The horse's tail, which is fluorinated and temperature sensitive, calls the soldiers back into the horse and they leave.

Friesen, 33, is no stranger to cracking difficult problems. At age 25, while working at DuPont, he discovered a use for hazardous chemical byproducts that scientists have been interested in for nearly 40 years.

However, completing this most recent project was a labour of love for Friesen, as funding to complete it has been surprisingly tight.

“It took four years to convince NSERC (The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) that we could solve the problem,” explains Friesen, who was overjoyed when he finally got the news about receiving the grant this year. “I think that at first they were skeptical that we were actually achieving this level of research. In the past TWU has been known for its liberal arts education, not science and research, despite thriving in areas like chemistry, biology, computer studies and nursing.”

The constant rejection for funding, despite consistently meeting the demands of the Council, was discouraging. Friesen and colleague Craig Montgomery, an inorganic chemist at TWU, both became adjunct professors at SFU at the request of NSERC, apparently to affirm their credibility, but they were still denied the grant. Finally, after filing for a patent, demonstrating their relationship with DuPont, collaborating with SFU, and establishing years of consistency, the chemists landed a $100,000 grant—$20,000 a year for five years—and are now able to continue the inventive analysis of fluorous biphase catalysis.

“We've got about 40 different versions of the poly(HFPO) to make and we've made three so far,” says Friesen. “The funding will allow us to hire more graduate and undergraduate researchers and fine-tune the process.”

The funding will allow for more students, like fourth-year Daryl Nyvall, to participate in the research and develop skills. Nyvall is the fifth consecutive TWU student to be offered a year-long paid internship with DuPont. Several of the interns have even been listed on previous patents, thanks to the research they conducted at TWU. If the current patent is approved, Nyvall will be listed as a co-inventor—along with Friesen, a former TWU student a DuPont researcher—for insulated perfluoropolyether alkyl alcohols which utilizes poly(HFPO).

“The internship positions are highly competitive,” says Friesen, “and they're awarded to only the very best. For the last five years we've had one student interning there each year and we've heard back that our students have been stellar.”

Last Updated: 2007-10-11
Author: Erin Mussolum