Cutting edge: Andrew Abbott

November 30, 2001

European Union legislation and the environmental lobby are forcing industry to put process cleanliness at the forefront of its considerations. The University of Leicester has a strong background in "green" technology and my research interests are in environmentally compatible solvents. Ionic liquids have attracted interest over the past 20 years because they are non-volatile and do not pollute the atmosphere. Academically, they are fascinating - mixing two solids to form a liquid at room temperature is like magic. Until recently, however, they have been too expensive for widespread industrial use.

About three years ago my colleague David Davies and I produced some new ionic liquids that are comparable in cost with many commonly used organic solvents. They can be made from readily available materials such as zinc chloride and choline chloride.

Within the university system it is difficult to set up and finance a spin-off company that requires significant research and development expenditure. Amazingly, within 18 months of our initial experiments we had formed the joint-venture company Scionix, obtained industrial backing and filed three patents covering more than 50,000 new ionic liquids. Our luck was to find a synergistic industrial partner - Genacys Ltd.

The turning point for Scionix came when one of our processes presented an economically viable solution to an urgent industrial problem. Chrome plating is used to prevent corrosion and wear, as well as for decorative purposes. Plating technology uses chromic acid, which is hazardous and a known carcinogen. EU and United States legislators are seeking to limit its industrial use but the lack of an alternative method has delayed the phase-out.

We have developed a method of plating chromium from an environmentally sustainable ionic liquid that should be recyclable and significantly decrease toxic emissions. We obtained funding from the Department of Trade and Industry and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for a consortium of companies to take the technology from bench idea to industrial reality. This group includes a company that will manufacture and recycle the ionic liquid, an electroplating business and the aerospace manufacturer that will use the finished pieces.

When I started this research, I was inexperienced about how business worked, but the past three years have been a roller-coaster ride through the intricacies of patent law. I am now as familiar with Swot analysis, Gantt charts and critical-path analysis as I ever was with chemical thermodynamics. I have learnt that a joint-venture company needs synergy between the partners, an academic interested in the applications as well as the theory, a multidisciplinary team and an idea that is timely. It may be heresy, but there are many aspects of business management that are useful in academia.

All of this sounds very simple, but there are difficulties in setting up such a venture. As with any academic project, funding for research and development is the primary issue, but for us the time constraints were more pressing. Prioritising engagements is an issue: which takes precedence, a board meeting or a tutorial? Industrial objectives are mostly short-term certainties whereas academic objectives are medium-term probabilities. The two worlds are not diametrically opposed but each has merits that make such joint ventures fascinating to work in. The strength of Scionix is that it is not a one-product or one-solution company. This is the right technology at the right time and, above all, it is the right colour - green.

Andrew Abbott is a senior lecturer in chemistry, University of Leicester.

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