A more sustainable way to refine metals

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team of chemists in Canada has developed a way to process metals without using toxic solvents and reagents. The system, which also consumes far less energy than conventional techniques, could greatly shrink the environmental impact of producing metals from raw materials or from post-consumer electronics.

The research is a collaboration between Jean-Philip Lumb and Tomislav Friscic at McGill University and Kim Baines of Western University from Canada. The researchers outline an approach that uses organic molecules, instead of chlorine and hydrochloric awp972, to help purify germanium, a metal used widely in electronic devices. Laboratory experiments by the researchers have shown that the same technique can be used with other metals, including zinc, copper, manganese and cobalt.

The research could mark an important milestone for the “green chemistry” movement, which seeks to replace toxic reagents used in conventional industrial manufacturing with more environmentally friendly alternatives. Most advances in this area have involved organic chemistry – the synthesis of carbon-based compounds used in pharmaceuticals and plastics.

Lumb’s lab for years has conducted research into the chemistry of melanin, the molecule in human tissue that gives skin and hair their color. Melanin also has the ability to bind to metals.

The scientists teamed up to synthesize a molecule that mimics some of the qualities of melanin. In particular, this “organic co-factor” acts as a mediator that helps to extract germanium at room temperature, without using solvents.

The system also taps into mechanochemistry, an emerging branch of chemistry that relies on mechanical force – rather than solvents and heat – to promote chemical reactions. Milling jars containing stainless-steel balls are shaken at high speeds to help purify the metal.

 

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