"Carbon dioxide is famous for global warming — it's everybody's favorite gas to hate these days," said chemistry professor Philip Jessop of Queen's University. "My research group is trying to figure out if we can use it for something useful."
Jessop is part of a research team that created a new solvent capable of extracting oil from soybeans when combined with carbon dioxide, according to the Queens University News Centre. It may not be an end-all solution for global warming, but by using the villainous greenhouse gas to create cooking oil, Jessop says excess carbon dioxide can contribute to society in a positive way.
Currently, industries use a solvent called hexane to extract oil from soybeans, but hexane is flammable, creates smog and is a neurotoxin — not something you want as residual from your cooking oil. Furthermore, the process of extracting oil with hexane requires distillation, which uses a lot of energy.
Jessop's new solvent, on the other hand, works its magic in a simpler, more eco-friendly way. It is a "switchable" solvent, meaning it can switch states from disliking water, or being hydrophobic, to liking water and disliking oil, or being hydrophilic. All the solvent requires to make the switch is the addition or subtraction of carbon dioxide.
This means it can extract oil by being added to a mixture of soybeans and carbonated water. Even better, the solvent switches back to its hydrophobic state when the carbon dioxide is removed from the water, so everything can be recycled.
"The end result is you have extracted soybean oil and there is no energy-consuming distillation required," said Jessop. Aside from putting carbon dioxide towards a friendly use, the new method also helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions by being more energy-efficient.
Before the new method can replace hexane, the team must make certain it is economically viable. "Next we have to do the economic calculations to see how much it is going to cost. If manufacturing with this environmentally friendly solvent is really expensive compared to the hexane, we have to figure out how we can we make it cheaper," said Jessop.