Ionic liquids, especially chiral ones, fascinate Sanjay V. Malhotra, PhD, assistant professor of chemistry and environmental science at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). “Properly formulated,” said the chemist, “these organic salts, which are found in natural substances as common as pine cones, could be a safe and effective way to dissolve and recover dangerous chemicals.”
Malhotra, who’s been promoting further study of the substance, was recently named the invited chairman of an upcoming conference on green chemistry to be held in January of 2006 in New Delhi, India. The conference will include multiple presentations on ionic liquids. NJIT and the University of Delhi are jointly organizing the event.
(NOTE: Contact Sheryl Weinstein 973-596-3436 for more information on the New Delhi conference or to interview Malhotra.)
Organizing events is not new to the young and ambitious faculty member. Last year, Malhotra organized chemical researchers from the Northeast into North America’s only consortium to study ionic liquids. Members included researchers from Rutgers University, City University of New York and other institutions. He also organized in August of 2004 a symposium at an annual meeting of the American Chemical Society.
Since 2004, the U.S. Department of Energy has funded Malholtra’s work. He is also collaborating on funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Recent published work by Malhotra and doctoral student Ying Xiao include “Friedel–Crafts Alkylation Reactions in Pyridinium-Based Ionic Liquids,” (Journal of Molecular Catalysis A: Chemical, Feb., 2005) and “Diels–Alder reactions in pyridinium based ionic liquids” ( Tetrahedron Letters, Nov. 1, 2004).
“I’m high on these liquids because I see them useful in industries such as mining or petroleum refinement,” Malhotra said. Research indicates that these solvents can be customized to dissolve almost any material, including metals, plastics and even rock.
Malhotra and Chengdong Zhang, a doctoral student, recently developed at NJIT a laboratory dedicated to organic synthesis of these liquids. “I think we are one of only a few such labs in the world,” Malhotra said.
In simple terms, chirality means that some compounds can have either a “left-handed” or “right-handed” molecular structure, as discovered by Louis Pasteur. Mirror-image forms, however, can have very different properties.
“What is a poison on the one hand, can be a medicine on the other,” Malhotra said. “Chirality is the heart and soul of pharmaceutical development and production.” Accordingly, because it’s possible to synthesize chiral forms of ionic liquids, they hold great promise for advancing basic biomedical research as well as facilitating the manufacture of pharmaceuticals.
Ionic liquids are organic salts that can be kept in a liquid state at room temperature, a breakthrough achieved only recently. Imidazolium and pyridinium derivatives are typical examples. The unique characteristics of these compounds have been known for over 50 years. There is even evidence that related compounds were used by Bronze Age weavers to fix the dyes in their fabrics.
In the twenty-first century, such solvents are basic constituents of products as commonplace as paint remover, and they are critical in many complex industrial processes. When employed as media for promoting organic synthesis or catalytic reactions, ionic liquids offer other substantial advantages as alternatives to conventional solvents.
Their greatest promise is as a superior medium to test for the presence of organophosphates. These compounds, common in many insecticides and pesticides, are also key ingredients of less benign chemical warfare agents. Malhotra is quick to emphasize how ionic liquids can open new paths to better health. ”They may also offer greater security against chemical attacks,” he added.