Chemicals are an integral part of our modern way of life. Whether it’s a treatment for cancer, paint thinner or herbicides, the chemical has to be made using a particular process. Until now, these chemical processes have used a manufacturing method called batch chemistry. But flow chemistry is having a huge impact in helping us to solve the greatest challenges and create future industries for Australia. A batch process involves chemicals being produced in large containers, batch reactors. Because of the underlying physics associated with large batch reactors, it is difficult to adequately control the temperature and the mix of the ingredients.
Getting the batch chemistry process right can take significant amounts of tweaking, often resulting in high levels of unwanted products, and costly and time-consuming purification. Batch chemistry can also be quite risky for operators as they need to check, adjust and re-check the processes, which can expose them to dangerous liquids and fumes and, at worst, runaway reactions that can lead to explosions.
Unlike batch chemistry where the reactants are combined in one go, the new process, flow chemistry, involves combining reactants continuously in a flowing tube. Flow chemistry processes can be used for small and large volumes and are controlled using advanced technology, which saves time, cuts energy costs and reduces waste. It also circumvents the need for operators to intervene between reactions, which keeps them safe.
Working with Boron Molecular on several projects, we helped to develop some impressive new processes, including one that will save the masterpieces of the world. Together we used flow chemistry to create a new resin called MS3 that is specifically designed for the conservation profession, and used to coat and protect paintings from the ravages of time.
The CSIRO team co-developed the resin with the National Gallery of Victoria and together with Boron Molecular, have made it available to conservators across the world. The resin is reversible, does not yellow as it ages like natural resins, and is completely clear. It can safely be used on priceless masterpieces to preserve them for future generations.
We’re continuing to develop our flow chemistry capability and capacity through the commissioning of FloWorks, supported by funding from the Science and Industry Endowment Fund (SIEF). FloWorks is a lab in Melbourne that will make it easier for chemical manufacturers to use flow chemistry for their chemical manufacturing needs. We will also continue to explore new horizons that could benefit from the exacting control that flow chemistry brings to chemical manufacturing.