Cages for Chemical Separations

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Chemistry


Fine chemicals are used as building blocks for many of the products that we rely upon, from pharmaceuticals to plastics. These molecules are isolated from mixtures that are often derived from petroleum. This isolation process can be challenging, generally involving distillation, a process which requires substantial energy input. A key aim of this project is to develop a new and more energy-efficient separation technology involving metal-organic cages. These cages are known to encapsulate various small organic compounds based on size and shape. The current project will develop new means of programming the behaviour of these cages, so that they will pick up and release these 'guest' molecules in response to the stimuli of light and heat. These cages will then be built into systems that enable cages to pick up high-value molecules from feedstocks, such as petroleum. The cages and cargoes will be pumped into a space where their molecular cargo is released in pure form, allowing the cages to be recycled in a closed-loop purification process. We anticipate that this process will allow the separation of valuable molecules with higher energy efficiency and lower cost than current methods.

Planned Impact

As it will directly address the high energy cost of chemical purification, our research will have an impact on industry and the general public.

Industry: Our research will develop a new chemical purification method, benefiting chemical industry, its sub-sectors and the UK chemical supply chains. Our aim is to isolate small organic compounds with a higher selectivity at lower energy cost and minimise carbon dioxide emissions. Intellectual property (IP) will be protected and exploited in accordance with the policy of the University of Cambridge. After the protection of all relevant IP, dissemination will be through publication in high impact journals and presentation at national and international conferences.

General Public: Attention from the public to supramolecular chemistry has been increasing in recent years with the recognition of potential technological applications such as new materials. Our group's work has been highlighted in international journals (including Nature and Science). By addressing a key current societal challenge, we aim to mitigate the damage being done to the climate by excessive energy use and CO2 emission during chemical purification.


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