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QUILL-PETRONAS Team Wins IChemE Award for Ionic Material to Remove Hazardous Mercury

The project by Queen's University Ionic Liquid Laboratories (QUILL), in collaboration with Malaysian oil and gas giant PETRONAS, was the major winner at the Institute of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) Awards. As well as collecting the award for Outstanding Achievement in Chemical and Process Engineering, the team won the Sustainable Technology Award and Chemical Engineering Project of the year, marking it out as the best chemical engineering project for innovation in waste reduction.

This is The Apprentice's Nick Hewer with Professor Jim Swindall, Co-founder of QUILL and Paul Haworth, Chief Process Engineer at Sellafield Ltd. Credit: Queen's University Belfast

The QUILL and PETRONAS team were presented with their awards by The Apprentice star and Countdown host Nick Hewer at the awards ceremony in Bolton.

QUILL scientists beat off competition from companies and universities around the globe to win the awards. Their lab, the first of its kind in the world, developed a new ionic liquid material to remove hazardous mercury from natural gas. Ionic liquids or 'super solvents' are salts that remain liquid at room temperature and do not release hazardous vapours. They can be used as non-polluting (green) alternatives to conventional solvents, and are revolutionising chemical processes by offering a much more environmentally friendly and sustainable solution than traditional methods.

The award-winning technology, developed by QUILL at its dedicated PETRONAS laboratory at Queen's, has been used to develop two full-scale commercial plants at PETRONAS gas terminals in Malaysia, which have been producing mercury-free, sales-quality natural gas since the first unit was opened in November 2011.

Explaining the mercury removal technology, known as HycaPure Hg™, Professor Martin Atkins from QUILL said: "This really is cutting-edge technology, and we are delighted that it has been recognised on the world-stage by IChemE. Mercury is one of the biggest threats to downstream processing in the oil and gas exploration industries, so it is a huge problem for companies like PETRONAS. It contaminates natural gas, corrodes processing equipment, and compromises the safety of processing plants and the quality of the end product. The amount of mercury present can vary by the hour, which makes it incredibly difficult to manage.

"At our dedicated PETRONAS laboratory here in QUILL, we have developed a new ionic liquid which completely removes toxic and corrosive mercury from natural gas and is capable of handling the unpredictable surges of mercury in the gas stream. We took the research from concept to commercialisation in less than four years, which is twice as fast as the industry norm. The result is a unique technology which performs three times better than other commercial mercury-removal products and is much more cost-effective. It really is a cutting-edge development, and we are delighted that it has been recognised on the world-stage by IChemE."

QUILL founded by Professor Ken Seddon and Professor Jim Swindall is home to nearly 100 scientists who are exploring the enormous potential of ionic liquids. Professor Swindall said: "Queen's is dedicated to advancing knowledge and changing lives, and QUILL's work on ionic liquid chemistry has a bearing on most of our lives. This award enhances the University's reputation as a global authority in this increasingly important area of research.

"Ionic liquids have huge potential to revolutionise how we live and work, and our impact on the environment. They can dissolve almost anything, from elements such as sulfur and phosphorus, which traditionally require nasty solvents, to harmful bacterial biofilms which protect MRSA from attack. They can also be used as lubricants, heat pumps, compression fluids – the list is endless."

Dr David Brown, IChemE's chief executive said: "The IChemE Awards represent the hard work, inventiveness and achievements of thousands of chemical engineers across the world. From reducing the cost of carbon capture, to improving safety, cleaning up the environment, advancing medical science and healthcare, reducing waste, improving efficiency, through to the development of new technologies like QUILL'S and PETRONAS' mercury removal unit, they all demonstrate the impact and importance of the work we do."

The global IChemE Award is the latest in a string of successes for QUILL. The global IChemE Award is a follow-up to the Malaysian IChemE Sustainable Technology Award, which QUILL and PETRONAS received for the same project last month. Earlier this year, ionic liquids were named the Most Important British Innovation of the 21st Century in recognition of their potential future impact on the world, in a poll initiated by the Science Museum, beating the Nobel Prize winning Higgs boson discovery. In addition, QUILL scientists Professor Ken Seddon and Dr John Holbrey were named the top two research chemists in the UK by Times Higher Education.

QUILL's partnership with PETRONAS began in 2007 and has brought together Queen's expertise in green chemistry with PETRONAS' experience in oil and gas production. In addition to the mercury removal process, a number of other joint projects are at a mature state of development.


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