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Wilfrid Laurier University chemist Dmitri Goussev and former colleague Denis Spasyuk have cleaned up a traditionally dirty chemical process.
They developed highly efficient catalysts for converting esters – a large family of compounds – into alcohols, eliminating almost all chemical waste from the process used regularly in industry and research.
The reaction that turns an ester into an alcohol can be used in several processes, like converting vegetable oils into fatty alcohols for use in cosmetics, fragrances and food products. Typically, reducing ester to alcohol is a dangerous and environmentally damaging process that requires a highly flammable ether solvent. This process produces large quantities of non-recyclable by-product that must be separated from the final product.
Goussev and Spasyuk used novel catalysts and hydrogen gas instead of the usual lithium aluminum hydride. This process, called ester hydrogenation, eliminates the need for solvents and avoids creating any waste by-product, as all hydrogen is consumed and becomes part of the final product.
Inspired by other published works, the pair discovered their first hydrogenation catalysts based on the noble metals ruthenium and osmium.
Goussev is working on a catalyst that is more efficient and will further improve industrial processes.