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Vy Nguyen

1 October 2012

Musselman

Unit 1

Documentation Style: CSE

Word count: 1,143

Ionic Liquids: How Solving One Problem Can Lead to Another

Chemical pollution has been a problem since the rise of industry. For years, hazardous materials such as plastics, pesticides, and PCBs have been released into the air and soil as a result of manufacturing. Not until recently, however, as environmental awareness continues to spread, has the public started demanding solutions. I, as a child raised on nature documentaries and National Geographic, am part of that public. As a result, I have looked into the study of green chemistry, a field born in response to this growing interest. Chemists in this discipline improve industrial processes to make them more eco-friendly. The work of Yanjie Tong et. al, in their paper “Influence of Ionic Liquid 1- butyl-3-methylimidazolium Chloride on the Soil Micro- Ecological System,” has become a part of this growing movement. 1 In their experiment, Tong et. al. studies ionic liquids, a potential replacement for the widely used, but poisonous organic solvent.

Organic solvents are, by definition, simply hydrocarbon-containing compounds able to dissolve other substances. They can be found in everything from paint to cleaning products to nail polish removers. However, organic solvents also pose a health risk to people and the environment. Most organic solvents are volatile; in other words, they evaporate at room temperature. As a result, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) constantly release toxic vapors into the air. VOCs can impair the liver, kidney, and heart as well as cause neurological disorders. In spite of the risks, millions of people are exposed to VOCs every day, leaving scientists scrambling to find alternatives.

One of these alternatives is ionic liquids (ILs), salts that are liquid at room temperature. ILs, like VOCs, can act as powerful solvents. Most importantly, ILs do not release contaminants

into the air the way VOCs do. Ionic liquids are being hailed as the “solvents of the future,” due to their potential to decrease industrial air pollution. 2

Just because ionic liquids do not threaten the atmosphere, however, does not mean they do not endanger the environment. ILs, like organic solvents, can span a huge variety of chemicals. Some of these chemicals are, naturally, toxic, and have the potential to wreak havoc if released in an accidental spill. Exactly how toxic ionic liquids can be, however, is still unknown.

To answer this question, Yanjie Tong et. al. conducted a study on the effects of 1-butyl 3- methylimidazolium chloride ([Bmim]Cl,) an ionic liquid, on the soil micro-ecological system. In their experiment, they exposed three different types of soil to increasing concentrations of [Bmim]Cl for fifteen days. Tong et. al. then estimated the number of microorganism communities remaining in each sample. They discovered that, as the concentration of [Bmim]Cl increased, the number of bacteria in the sample decreased. [Bmim]Cl was inhibiting bacterial growth. In other words, it is toxic.

Although [Bmim]Cl was shown to be poisonous, many uncertainties remain. Tong et. al. discovered that actinomycetes, a subset of bacteria that share similarities with fungi, are more sensitive to [Bmim]Cl than other types of bacteria. Why this is, however, has yet to be discovered. Tong et. al. is also unsure of the mechanism behind [Bmim]Cl toxicity, and how it affects interactions between members of the soil microecosystem. In other words, Tong et. al. knows that [Bmim]Cl is poisonous. They just do not know why.

This “why” seems to be the new knowledge front of green chemistry. Researchers are constantly finding new materials and procedures to make industry more environmentally-friendly. However, we often fail to fully analyze the repercussions of these techniques before putting them into large-scale production. It seems as though innovations are being discovered too fast for scientists to keep up. After all, the reasons behind chemical toxicity are very much unexplored. Every compound affects a different, specific process in cells. Research, then, has to be very individualized to the chemical and organism at hand. In addition, scientists are only able to explore one factor at a time. How multiple pollutants interact with each other, or how a poisoned microorganism affects the larger ecological community, are questions that are only beginning to be resolved through long-term case studies. Are we simply throwing out old methods for equally

bad ones? Only with more knowledge of the chemicals we are usingtheir structure, effects on the cell, and direct effects on the environmentwill we be able to tell.

As global warming and industrial pollution have become increasingly dire, scientists are rushing to clean up the environment. A great deal of research is being done at Northeastern. For instance, Professor Donald Cheney is bioengineering seaweed to remove pollutants from the ocean. Dr. Gail Begley is researching bioremediation, where microbes are used to break down toxins in spill sites. Having these professors at Northeastern not only gives students access to cutting-edge research, but also presents chances for undergraduates to work in the labs.

I am a biology undergraduate, so there are plenty of opportunities available right on campus. As a mere sophomore, though, there is so much that I still cannot comprehend. The structure of 1-butyl-3-methylimidazolium, how to perform a ten-fold dilution, and what a Pseudokirchneriella subcapitata is are all out of my league. Obtaining a PhD and running my own research lab are ages away. Instead, I stand at a position where I am able to learn more. At the moment, I am free to read what I like, discover what I am interested in, and carve my own path in the world of biology. For now, that seems to be the environment. With its vast amount of unsolved problems and relevance to our developing world, I have always found “green” issues fascinating. So while I am nowhere near the level of academia now, with a little curiosityand a lot of driveI can take the first step towards understanding more.

I find that the more I understand, however, the more daunting the problem becomes. Green chemists combat the ever-growing knowledge front every day, just to realize that a broad solution is impossible to obtain. Our environmental issues are far too complex for a single panacea. It will take years of study and generations of scientists before these questions are ever resolved. A truly “green” planet is still far away, but I hope, with whatever small contributions I can make, I can help build a more sustainable world.

Works Cited

1. Yanjie T, Qijun W, Yafan B, Mingke L, Yezi Lv, Yangyang L, Jiali L, Lili L,

Yali M, Yuanxin W, and Shengdong Z. 2012. Influence of Ionic Liquid 1- butyl-3-

methylimidazolium Chloride on the Soil Micro-Ecological System. The Open Biotechnology Journal. [Cited 2012 Sept 6] 6, 1-4. Available from:

http://benthamscience.com/open/tobiotj/articles/V006/1TOBIOTJ.pdf

2. Rogers RD and Seddon KR. 2003. Ionic Liquids--Solvents of the Future? Science.

[Cited 2012 Sept 9] 302(5646) 792-793. Available from:

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/302/5646/792.full

Acknowledgements I would like to thank Lauren Motto for her suggestion to cut the number of citations and add a definitive conclusion. I would also like to thank Emma Kurman-Faber for noting the vague focus of my paper, and the fact that I do not mention green chemistry until halfway through. Daniel Hecht provided the excellent suggestion to end my paper with a discussion of the broader issues instead of my own relation to the field, and I would like to thank him for that. I also extend my thanks to my Advanced Writing class for the fall of 2012, as they provided a great deal of helpful feedback on how to improve the structure and grammar of my essay. Finally, I would like to thank my professor, Dr. Cecelia Musselman, who helped me find the focus of my essay and delve deeper into the knowledge front.

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