Inventor’s corner: Mixing it up
14 October 2011
Mark Sephton, Professor of Organic Geochemistry and Meteoritics (Earth Sciences and Engineering), is currently working on the ExoMars joint ESA/ NASA mission to deliver rovers to the surface of Mars, where they will search for evidence of past or present life on the planet.
What have you invented?
As part of the ExoMars mission, we were asked to develop a method for extracting organic compounds from rock, which could then be analysed by the ExoMars rover’s Life Marker Chip for evidence of life such as hydrocarbons. Usually, we’d use organic solvents to get at the organic compounds, but the Life Marker Chip uses antibodies to identify specific molecules, and they would be destroyed by the organic solvents. So we were tasked with developing a new solvent based on water, because antibodies have no problems in water. Essentially, we had to dissolve oil in water but they don’t mix. So we looked at a range of different surfactants that would help them mix, and found one that does this extremely well – it is almost as efficient as an organic solvent.
And now you’ve discovered another application for the oil industry?
Two thirds of the world’s oil supply is in so-called ‘unconventional hydrocarbons’ such as oil sands. By Mixing it up inventor’s corner 2020, around 10 per cent of the oil we use will come from these sources. At the moment, the processes used to extract the oil are environmentally damaging and either inefficient (hot water flotation) or very expensive (using organic solvents). The process we’ve developed is around 10 times more efficient than using hot water flotation, it’s inexpensive and all its components are environmentally benign.
How are you commercialising the work?
We’ve filed a patent and are currently working with industrial partners under a knowledge exchange grant from the UK Space Agency.
— Gavin Reed, Imperial Innovations