Spiro D Alexandratos, Status Discussion

Third DOE/Basic Energy Sciences Separations
Research Workshop
Savannah DeSoto Hilton, Savannah, Georgia
May 12-14, 1999

Status Discussion 

Spiro D. Alexandratos
University of Tennessee

The discussion leader in this portion of the summaries of the 3rd DOE/BES Separations Sciences Research Workshop was Professor Spiro Alexandratos of the University of Tennessee.  His approach was to present an overview of the technical discussions of the workshop, which almost overlays the status of the programs in the area of separations within the office of Separations and Analysis.  The report and subsequent discussions is subdivided into subject areas. 


  1. Polymer
    1. Post cross-linked polyimides,
    2. Langmuir-Blodgett monolayers,
    3. organic/inorganic hybrids;
  2. liquid. This is an area in which there has been no commercial success, but there continues to be research effort.  There is no support currently for these programs.

Solvent Extraction:  this continues to be an area in which there is considerable support and a great deal of commercial interest. Concerns for environmental issues are major questions for these technologies.

  1. reverse micelles and other aggregations
  2. Electrohydrodynamics
  3. Aqueous biphasic

Polymer Supports for chromatography and other sorption technologies:

One of the central themes of the conferences was the synthesis of supports and support systems for use in chromatography and other forms of sorption.  One of the central theme underlying many of the talks was the struggle to replace Edisonian experimental approaches with creation of new media based on the understanding of the interactions with target sorbed species.  Work in several areas was reported:

These include:

  1. Inorganic polymers, where the emphasis was
    1. Hyperbranched polymers on inorganic supports
    2. Imprinted inorganic polymers
    3. Oligonucleotides for molecular recognition;
  2. Organic polymers including
    1. High capacity, rapid kinetics,
    2. Ion recognition 
    3. Self-assembled ionophores

Distillation: Here enhancement process, such as the imposition of electric fields to enhance transport were discussed.

Some of the questions that continue to bubble to the surface are:

  1. Have we identified all avenues of separations?
  2. How do we address environmental compatibility?
  3. Which techniques should we emphasize?
  4. Which are the mature technologies? (how do you define this?)
  5. Can we organize our efforts?  Should we?

There a were a good many comments on this talk and its questions but focusing our research efforts brought forth the idea that there are such overwhelming societal problems that it is inappropriate to continue in investigator-driven research.  In other words “Are we fiddling while Rome is burning?” The consensus was clearly that focused programs will only be able to solve problems 3-5 years ahead.  The big jumps will be made by basic researchers “in Brownian motion”. 

The opinion was put forward that corporate research had sufficient incentive to solve problems where large profits were possible.

Roadmapping of the type of investigator-centered research is not a relevancy, since we are asking researchers to work on the avenues that come to their fertile minds, not telling them what the important problems might be.  In basic research the unforeseen happens, and everything changes.  The most cogent argument for the continued support of basic research is that you can’t predict what’s going to be the future use of these findings.  However hindsight clearly shows a very large payback for the support given to basic research. 

A discussion of the adequacy of education on separations in chemistry programs indicated a concern that chemistry as a whole was not giving sufficient attention to the needs of students in this area.  Several anecdotal points were made, but no central theme was presented which resonated throughout the workshop.

Another discussion which is considered an issue for the community is the argument that trendy topics seem to be emphasized in funding often at the expense of the basic program.  Separations in general is not a hot topic, although on a second level separations appear in many initiatives. Funding agencies are more interested in racehorses than workhorses, so if is difficult to get pure separations work funded.

Comments on the Separations Workshop:

  1. Would industry attendance at workshops like this be a positive feature?  Some say good idea; others say that there is rarely a free interchange of ideas when industry attends.  It was pointed out that there are literally hundreds of conferences, symposia and workshops were industry can and does participate.  It is useful that have one workshop where intra mural discussions can occur.
  2. This workshop has occurred on an irregular schedule, approximately once every 5 years). It was proposed that the frequency be increased to become biennial event.  This possibility is under consideration.
  3. Because of the evident success of the poster session, it was proposed that everybody speak for 5 minutes to the assembled meeting and that this be followed by poster sessions in which every participant have a poster.  There was some concern that the group synergy be lost through the diffusion of such am meeting.  The group experience will lose something in this format. 
  4. Subsequent to the workshop there was a good deal of positive commentary on the value of the meeting and the manner in which it was carried out.  Before wholesale changes are considered, one might want to bear these comments in mind.