Molecular Imprinted Polymers present a unique opportunity to make inexpensive materials that selectivly bind to and filter pollutants.
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MIPs are a type of "custom made" polymer that have the ability to bind to specific molecules. Current technology is capable of producing many different forms of MIPs which include membranes and particles depending on the preparation at a low cost. This versatile technology can be exploited to make filters that can be used not only in industry to filter pollutants like CO2 but also pollutants that would normally be dumped into lakes or rivers.
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While true effectiveness against CO2 may be held back by shear quantity of CO2 and the surface area of the polymer, advances in research could give polymer filters significantly greater efficacy than previously seen.
Possible targets other than CO2 include Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and nitrogen fluorides. These compounds were recently identified by a Purdue and NASA study to have a higher warming potential than even CO2 and CH4 (methane). MIPs could very effectively remove these compounds when even trace amounts are produced.
The effectiveness of a polymer at removing such compounds is dependent on the properties of the MIP. Promising results have been observed with CO2, a small molecule, suggesting there is no reason similar results couldn't be achieved for larger fluorocarbons. (1)
Polymer filters have many different types. One key area of research that would help make MIPs highly effective is nanotechnology. Nanoporous polymer membranes with phenomenal surface areas, polymer nanotubes, polymer nanofibers, and polymer nanostructures in general have applications, and can easily be incorporated into the synthesis of MIPs. (12, 13)
The picture above depicts a nanoporous polymer membrane (14)
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What actions do you propose?
What are MIPs?
MIPs stands for Molecularly Imprinted Polymers. A polymer is a chain of simpler molecules called monomers. Many items in daily life are made of polymers, for example polytetrafluoroethylene (PFTE) is a common coating on cookware, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is widely used to make plastic bottles, and polystyrene is used to make take-out containers. MIPs are different from normal polymers because they are made to have a specific “shape” that allow a target molecule to be captured in that space similar to a jigsaw puzzle.
How do MIPs work?
Molecularly Imprinted Polymers function similarly to enzymes and catalysts meaning that they use their shapes and functional groups to recognize and capture specific molecules. This process can be likened to a lock and key, where the lock is the polymer and the key is target molecule that was imprinted into the polymer. The lock-and-key attribute of MIPs allows them to be highly selective, meaning that they can target a single molecule even though there may be many others in the mixture. MIPs can be made using various techniques, the most common is the non-covalent polymerization. In the non-covalent process a template molecule that resembles (or is) the target molecule is mixed with functional monomers (subunits of the polymer) and a crosslinking agent. The template and functional monomers are bound together with the crosslinking agent through an initiator. The difference between the non-covalent process and the other processes (covalent and semi-covalent) arises in the types of interaction the template has with the MIP and how it is removed from the MIP. In a non-covalent process the template can be removed simply by washing with a solvent, however with covalent and semi-covalent the template must be cleaved from the MIP breaking the covalent bonds. Once the template is removed the MIP can then be used to target and capture individual molecules.
Where are MIPs used?
MIPs are currently being used in various applications such as drug delivery, chemical synthesis, and purification. They are used extensively for detecting impurities, such as in food, and chemical products.
How can MIPs be applied to climate change?
MIPS can be made into filters that are designed for individual gasses, for example, CO2 was absorbed by a MIP here http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es203580b
Polymers that have been imprinted can then be formed into a variety of materials, including nanoparticles, thin membranes, and gels, which can be used to make a filter, the filter can be applied in many ways, if a membrane is produced to absorb pollutants in a liquid medium, it can be coated on a large surface area screen which can be replaced. For Gasses that require more surface areas, large catalytic converter style filters can be made to maximize contact between the gas molecules and the filter itself.
As you can see, the interior of a catalytic converter has a huge amount of surface area for a relatively little size.
Below are some examples of high surface area filters made from polymers:
Once the filters are used, it is then possible to recycle them quite easily, because the polymers are relatively simple, and the chemicals used to make them are common, they can be dissolved in a solvent and the filtrate will be released. once released the filtrate can be recovered in a medium that is usable, or can be broken down further.
How are MIPs Made?
1) The MIP must be designed for targeted molecule
2) The proper chemicals must be acquired for the synthesis
3) depending on the type of filter the MIP must then be synthesized for use, where it is in the form of nanoparticles, or membranes.
4) once used, the MIP must be 'washed' to remove the target molecule or can be completely recycled and reformed for reuse.
What is the business side?
I recently was able to speak with Kenneth J. Shea Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering & Material Science at University of California Irvine about some of the logistics of this proposal, the questions and his responses are below:
How much would it cost to develop MIPS for pollutants?
"The largest contributing factor to the development cost is the time of the researcher and the costs associated with establishing, running and maintaining a research laboratory for the scientist to perform his/her research. Since it is a research project it is difficult to say exactly how long it will take to solve a particular problem, however given the fact that there is extensive literature on molecular imprinting one could reasonably estimate that within one year (or much less) a researcher would have a very good idea if a promising MIP was in hand."
How much does it cost to mass-produce MIPs?
"Since most MIPs are produced using relatively inexpensive raw materials and since most polymerization reactions are scalable, there is excellent precedent to produce large quantities of synthetic MIP polymers. It is quite reasonable to expect that a successful MIP could be mass-produced relatively inexpensively. Polymers that are very similar to a typical MIP polymer are already mass-produced. One example would be ion exchange materials that are used as water softeners. One of the advantages of MIPs is that they are usually made from monomers that are readily available and relatively inexpensive."
How difficult is it to produce filters out of polymers?
"The physical properties of most MIP polymers are very conducive to their incorporation into a filter cartridge. Indeed most commercial MIP products are sold in filter cartridges. The properties that make them desirable are a material with a permanent porous structure with reasonably strong mechanical properties. These properties are ideally suited for their use as a filter matrix."
What form of polymer is best for filters in liquid\gases, membranes, nanoparticles, gels etc?
"Typically, highly cross-linked macroporous synthetic polymers are best suited for use in filters. Nanoparticles and gels for example do not have the proper mechanical properties or if they are very small (like a nanoparticle) they close pack. If they compress too easily under relatively mild pressure, like a gel, they clog the filter. If the particles are are too small (nano) a column full of them would require extremely high pressure to pass a liquid through the column. To operate at high pressures would be dangerous and costly. This again is a very nice aspect of a MIP since they have very similar properties to materials that are currently used in filter cartridges."
Phase I: Initial Research
At this initial stage, research will be conducted to identify target molecules, design effective MIPs and develop a proof of concept (POC). This can be accomplished by two routes. One route would be collaborating with a university professor who has the laboratory facilities and the infrastructure needed to accomplish the initial research. For example MIT innovation lab facilities will suit this development in proving the needed infrastructure. The initial POC could be accomplished by hiring one or two graduate students. Financial support would be from one of several government initiatives targeting environmental research such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) program on green engineering:
- Green Engineering: Research is encouraged to advance the sustainability of manufacturing processes, green buildings, and infrastructure. Many programs in the Engineering Directorate support research in environmentally benign manufacturing or chemical processes. The Environmental Sustainability program supports research that would affect more than one chemical or manufacturing process or that takes a systems or holistic approach to green engineering for infrastructure or green buildings... http://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=501027
The second option would be the foundation of a startup company. This will be made possible through the support of venture capitalists, investors, and government sponsored SBIRs (Small Business Innovation Research) and STTRs (Small Business Technology Transfer). Along this route funding can also be sought through grants, competition, and online fundraising such as Rocket Hub:
NSF SBIR/STTR programs provide non-dilutive funds for early-stage research and development (R&D) at small businesses. This R&D should be based on transformational technology with high technical risk and potential for significant societal or commercial impact. -- http://www.nsf.gov/eng/iip/sbir/
EPA SBIR program provides funding for businesses researching "Industrial process pollution reductions" -- http://epa.gov/ncer/sbir/
The infrastructure of the company would include an experienced management team, a board of directors, a scientific advisory board, and full-time and part-time employees. The results from the stage I POC studies will also be published in scientific journals.
Phase II Scale Up and Beta Testing:
Once an initial POC has been established, the next step would be manufacturing the polymers on a larger scale suitable for commercial testing and applications. This could be accomplished by outsourcing the production to contract manufacturing operations. In phase II customers will be targeted for distribution as well as for additional applications/testing and data generation. Potential applications include but are not limited to chemical, pesticide, oil refining, petrochemical, metal smelting, iron and steel, and food processing industries. At this stage, personnel will be utilized to establish relationships with potential partners with whom the polymers can be tested.
Phase III: Prototyping a Final Design
At this phase, an engineering team would be utilized to integrate the MIPs with existing products of choice. This includes replaceable filters for liquid industrial waste, high density filters for industrial exhaust gasses, and even municipal water purification. At this stage a market analysis would be conducted to identify markets with the most promising emissions reduction. Based on the market analysis and the target product profile, a final product(s) will be designed and manufactured.
Phase IV: Product Launch and Commercialization
At this stage a sales and marketing team would be put in place, or a partner with existing sales and marketing teams would be utilized to bring the product to market. The versatility of this product makes it very amenable to applications in countries where pollution is prominent such as China, India, Brazil, and Russia.
One of the most immediate applications is as an inexpensive, rapid deployment CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage). Current CCS technology can be expensive, and isn't as easily distributable as a MIP based filter. Current methods include very complex methods of gas separation that are not easily implemented in industries located in less wealthy countries. With MIPs CCS technology can be globally spread very rapidly, creating a foundation for more advanced CCS technology in the future. more info on CCS http://www.zeroemissionsplatform.eu
The second use is to capture and reuse methane that is released during the production and transport of coal, natural gas, and oil, in addition to methane emissions that result from livestock and other agricultural practices and by the decay of organic waste in municipal solid waste landfills.http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases.html
MIPs will also be applied to filter harmful pollutants from liquid waste in both industrial and municipal water supplies. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists pesticides and fertilizers as one of the most prominent forms of water pollution, largely occurring in agricultural industry. MIPs will be used as filters for water supplies that are affected by pesticides, or located near sources of agricultural pollution.http://water.epa.gov/drink/info/well/health.cfm
Who will take these actions?
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This addresses the issue of feasibility, brought up by the judges who noticed the challenge of designing the MIP for each individual pollutant.
In a traditional approach, an individual or team of researchers would design and test different MIPs to find the optimal one for a target molecule. This approach relies on the expertise of the researchers. Over the past few years however, research has lead to methods of computational design. These may still require optimization, however the process of designing and evaluating the MIP is made much more efficient.
A study that explores a "rational" method for formulating MIPs explains that it "could be done either virtually using computational modelling or by template adsorption using a small library of polymers prepared using different cross-linkers." (15)
Another study finds that computational design "based on the comparison of the binding energy of the complexes between the template and different functional monomers" is a viable option for designing MIPs. (16)
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As stated in the business model, one of two routes can be taken to bring a MIP based filter to market.
University based research route key actors:
Phase I: Initial Research
- Professor to assign grad students/guide the initial research
- Grad students who will research MIP compositions
Phase II: Scale up and Beta Testing
- Company to produce the polymer in bulk
- Possible clients for beta testing
- Personnel to establish relations with clients
- Committee will establish research personnel
Phase III: Prototyping a final Design
- Engineering team to design final product
- market analysis team to identify effective clients
Phase IV: Product Launch and Commercialization
- Marketing/Sales team to establish relations with more clients, and to promote the product
Where will these actions be taken?
The research and development of the polymers will be done in the US as there are many existing financial grants to research into environmental impact reduction. However potential clients can be sought after all over the world
Phase I, Initial Research: Takes place in the US due to the many environmental research initiatives and government incentives/funding.
Phase II, Scale Up and Beta Testing: The large scale manufacturing of the polymer will ideally (for efficiency and speed) take place in US companies, however if there are sufficient benefits, the production can be outsourced to foreign companies. The beta testing clients will be initially located in the US however will spread to countries such as India to test applications in different environments.
Phase III, Prototyping a Final Design: This stage will take place in the US for the same reason as in the first stage, because of the abundant financial resources provided by SBIRs, STTRs, and government initiatives.
Phase IV, Product Launch and Commercialization: the final product will be first launched in the US and then expand to Europe, Asia, and South America. Specifically targeting areas with high pollution.
How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?
New for Semi-Finals
MIPs have a very well established ability to absorb specific molecules. A good estimate can be given once an initial test is completed with the target molecule. Several studies have shown high effectiveness for CO2 absorption, and this effectiveness will only increase with more reactive molecules. (1) As stated by the judges, this proposal has a "seed funding" aspect. That is to say that its primary focus is to bring attention to a promising area of research that could aid to reduce critically harmful industrial pollutants. Such pollutants, like chemical byproducts which may be toxic, can be targeted by the polymer. If research brings new forms of polymer filters, this effect can be maximized, and any drawback of production will be minimized, especially by the huge effectiveness of the specialized filter. The true potential of MIP technology is in specialized industrial pollutants, which may infiltrate local environments in both small and large scales.
What are other key benefits?
This proposal has distinct advantages in that it allows for targeting pollutants, instead of taking a blanket approach in removing all emissions including non-harmful ones like water vapor. In addition, it can be used in almost all types of production, whether the process produces gaseous pollutants, or liquid ones. MIP's also have applications in drainage pipes that lead to the ocean which could be coated in a polymer that removes harmful waste.
Additional benefits include the very low cost of manufacturing which provides extra incentives for potential clients to use the filters and receive governmental benefits due to reduced emissions. In addition, the low cost allows the polymer filters to be applied in third world countries, and does not require any large governmental policy change, so it can be carried out on a short time scale.
What are the proposal’s costs?
The main cost of the proposal is the initial research and production of the filters which will only take a short time due to the fact that the field of polymer science is very well developed. The production of MIPs is already mainstream in processes of drug delivery so it is a simple process of changing the ingredients to produce the polymers required on a mass scale.
Initial research: Costs include the purchasing of chemicals/machines that are required to research the polymer. This cost can reasonably be achieved under $50,000 including payment for any post docs, or grad students working on the research.
Scale up and Beta testing: The Cost of large scale production of the polymer will be somewhat mitigates by the fact that it is being outsourced to a polymer production company. This cost is likely to not exceed 20-30 thousand dollars depending on the production scale.
Prototyping a Final Design: The cost of developing a final design is split between any machines required to build a prototype, and the payment of the engineering team responsible for developing the prototype, this should be in the range of 20-40 thousand dollars.
Product Launch and Commercialization: the cost of this stage is mainly attributed to the launch, and initial marketing involved, it should be under $20,000.
In total, the process from initial research to bringing the product to market and applying it should only be from 150 to 250 thousand dollars, close to the amount that many startup companies require.
Short term 1-2 years: The first stage of development, the initial research can easily occur between one and two years.
Medium term 2-4 years: The medium stage encompasses the second, and possibly the third stage, with a scale up taking less than 6 months and beta testing being fairly rapid in domestic (US) applications.
Long term 4-6 years: The final stage of development, the marketing and implementation of the final product will occur in the large scale.
I would like to thank ClimateColab Fellow Osero Shadrack Tengeya for his help in editing, and suggesting improvements during the 2015 semi-finals review.