/ 5 July 2013

Chemistry’s changing flow gives this science greener methods

Flow chemistry is leading the change towards safer cleaner experiments.
Flow chemistry is leading the change towards safer cleaner experiments. (Supplied)

Forget test tubes, Bunsen burners, petri dishes and pipettes — chemistry as you have always known it is changing.

Today's new-look chemistry is about providing information in a cleaner, cheaper, safer and quicker fashion by using new technology. 

The periodic tables and know-ledge of molecules and compounds remain unchanged but the way of adding value to the work of industry is being simplified and made safer through a relatively new branch of chemistry called flow chemistry, or continuous manufacturing.

Flow chemistry is only about 15 years old. It examines chemical reactions in a continuously flowing stream rather than in traditional batch-production style.

This means that, instead of completing one or two costly experiments on a large scale, researchers can conduct as many as 200 experiments daily on a minute scale and stop them in process if necessary.

A move in the right direction
This has incredibly positive implications because research can be conducted on a more affordable and safer scale. 

It is also a far "greener" way of doing chemistry.

Leading the change locally is British scientist Professor Paul Watts, who says he was attracted to Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and South Africa because of "the scope to make a difference" in industry-based research by means of development and commercialisation.

"This is research where we can add value in so many different spheres. I call it 'research with a purpose'."

Many South African companies purchase their chemicals from overseas, which is expensive, says Watts. 

"Our smaller production platforms with the best technology make us a viable option in the chemical and biotechnology fields." 

Watts took up his appointment at the university in January and already has two research associates and two doctoral students working with him. 

He obtained his doctorate in bio-organic natural product chemistry at Bristol University and moved to Hull University, where he led the microreactor and continuous flow technology group. 

He is on several editorial boards and is an associate editor of the Journal of Flow Chemistry.

He is also well connected with other researchers in his field in Europe and the United States.

Large scale
"We help companies with our new engineering techniques in the manufacturing of micro-structured devices to see if it will work on the large scale for production purposes," he said. 

"We're developing the technology to enable this to happen."

Watts is working on a natural oil derived from Eucalyptus citriodora as the starting material for a novel plasticiser that can be used in various applications from nail polish to pharmaceuticals. 

The university has a longstanding research reputation in what is known as "downstream chemistry".

This looks at the recovery and purification of biosynthetic products, particularly pharmaceuticals, from natural sources such as animal or plant tissues, including the recycling of salvageable components and proper disposal of waste.

The university recently established a research chair in microfluidic bio/chemical processing — one of four new chairs at the university that aims to be recognised for its leadership in generating cutting-edge knowledge. 

Debbie Derry is senior manager of communications at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University