A 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.
“At a time when natural deposits of metals are on the decline, there is a great deal of interest in improving the efficiency of metal refinement and recycling, but few disruptive technologies are being put forth,” says Jean-Philip Lumb, an associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Chemistry. “That’s what makes our advance so important.
The discovery stems from a collaboration between Lumb and Tomislav Friščić at McGill in Montreal, and Kim Baines of Western University in London, Ont. In an article published recently in Science Advances, the researchers outline an approach that uses organic molecules, instead of chlorine and hydrochloric acid, 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, for example.