Journal of Environmental Protection, 2010, 1, 95-104
doi:10.4236/jep.2010.12012 Published Online June 2010 (
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JEP
Revisiting Characteristics of Ionic Liquids: A
Review for Further Application Development
Rusen Feng1,2, Dongbin Zhao1*, Yongjun Guo1
1State Key Lab of Oil and Gas Reservoirs Geology and Exploration, Southwest Petroleum University, Chengdu, China; 2 School of
Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Southwest Petroleum University, Chengdu, China.
Received January 15th, 2010; revised March 8th, 2010; accepted March 10th, 2010.
In literature concerning ionic liquid (IL) applications, the commonly accepted properties of ionic liquids are frequently
mentioned. For example, ionic liquids are described as possessing immeasurably low vapor pressure, being green
material, non-coordinating, physically and chemically stable, and non-toxic, to name a few. However, all these de-
scriptions are deemed not exact” [1] as intensive research on ionic liquid properties continues. This review highlights
the most recent developments in IL chemistry where the “well-known” description of IL properties sometimes proves to
be inaccurate. However, in the authors’ opinion, all these new research developments concerning ionic liquid proper-
ties serve to update knowledge on the typical physical and chemical properties of ILs, which is significant to both theo-
retical research and industrial applications. This review presents an opportunity to understand IL through a more com-
plete and accurate view. It seeks to pave the way for further studies on IL application in various fields.
Keywords: Ionic Liquids, Functionalized Ionic Liquids, Volatility, Polarity, Green Chemistry
1. Introduction
Scientific and technical research on ionic liquid (IL) ap-
plication has progressed over the last 20 years. Interest
has been derived from ILs’ unique advantageous proper-
ties, such as non-volatility, versatile solubility, and sta-
bility, to name a few. These properties present ILs as a
promising alternative to environmentally undesirable
volatile organic solvents, especially chlorinated hydro-
carbons. Successful industrial processes using ionic liq-
uids appear to confirm such advantages [2].
Another important feather on the cap of ILs is the abil-
ity of their molecular structure to be tailored according to
application requirements. This has spurred the rise of
task-specific ionic liquids, or the so-called functionalized
ionic liquids [3-5].
Existing studies on ILs, especially the earlier ones, re-
iterated the following advantageous properties:
1) No measurable vapor pressure or non-volatility
2) Low toxicity
3) High polarity
4) Non-coordination
5) Physical and chemical stability
The above-mentioned description appeared at a time
when only limited kinds of ionic liquids were available,
especially those based on imidazolium salts. In-depth
investigations were not carried out. Nevertheless, as re-
search progressed and a number of new ILs were synthe-
sized, the said properties were proven to be non-standard.
Various results obtained from newer research works
offered counterexamples to the said properties. For ex-
ample, IL vapor pressure can now be measured and ILs
can be distilled. Further, the toxicity tests of commonly
used ILs in bioassays prove that they are considerably
toxic. Furthermore, the commonly used “stable” 1-ethyl-
3-methylimidazolium bis(trifluoromethylsulfonyl)imide
([emim][Tf2N]) was even tested as a propellant for space
shuttle. Based on these, the authors conclude that the
traditional description has been rendered incomplete and
inappropriate. In addition, the IL varieties that trigger
property change are, to a certain extent, ignored and not
realized systematically.
To date, there is a significant number of high-quality
reviews on IL research activities, from the early ones that
generally focused on catalysis [6-13], to current detailed
descriptions of specified applications such as coordina-
tion chemistry [14], physicochemical properties [15],
analytical chemistry [16], polymer materials [17], fluo-
rine chemistry [18], and nanotechnology [19]. All these
reviews contribute largely to the rapid rise and stimula-
tion of research interest on ILs.
Revisiting Characteristics of Ionic Liquids: A Review for Further Application Development
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JEP
This review attempts to highlight the new findings
concerning ionic liquid properties, specifically those in-
dicating that the ILs’ “well-known” descriptions should
be updated and even corrected. The authors believe that a
careful recognition of IL properties based on recent dis-
coveries is essential to research and application. Instead
of nullifying the unique value of ionic liquids, this will
provide an opportunity to explore new avenues for re-
search and application. Without a doubt, a more com-
plete and accurate understanding of IL properties will be
beneficial for further studies concerning these “magic”
2. Can Ionic Liquids be Distilled?
“Negligible”, “immeasurable”, “extremely low”, “van-
ishingly small”, and “virtually nonexistent” are among
the most common descriptions ascribed to vapor pressure
of ionic liquids. It was therefore logical to assume that
ionic liquids are non-volatile and impossible to distill,
especially since they are composed completely of ions
Early investigations of ionic liquids’ thermal proper-
ties using thermogravimetric analysis (TGA) [21] proved
that they possessed minimal vapor pressure up to their
thermal decomposition temperature. This property is
considered an advantage when applied to the distillation
process because the azeotrope formation between the
solvent and products does not occur. In addition, this
charac teristic is expected to ease manipulation and puri-
fication, and facilitate multiphasic application and recy-
cling [22]. Vapor pressure research related to ILs was
almost refined in the binary or multimixed system of ILs
and other volatile liquids [23-29]. There were reports on
the theoretical estimation of ILs’ thermodynamic proper-
ties, including the calculation of vapor pressures [30-32].
However, this feature led to certain limitations such as
problems in distilling ionic liquids to achieve extreme
purity or the almost-impossible use of the ionic liquids in
the gas phase. One exception is the protic ionic liquids
written as [HC]+ [A], which can be vaporized like equi-
librium forming [C][HA], which are both volatile [33]
(Scheme 1). However, the reverse protic transfer is
found recently can be controlled by changing cation type,
for example, superbase cations by which the thermal sta-
bility is greatly enhanced [34].
Information purporting that “ionic liquid cannot be
distilled” and “their vapor pressure cannot be measured”
has been nullified only recently. A report on one-stage
Scheme 1. Distillation process of protic ionic liquids
distillation of imidazolium ionic liquid of [Tf2N] anion
under reduced pressure at moderate temperature was
published [35] The authors used experimental surface
tension and density measurement, as well as Eötvos or
Guggenheim empirical equations, to estimate the critical
points related to the IL’s normal boiling points. Accord-
ing to the study’s results, measuring ILs’ vapor pressure
is possible, owing to a wide window of possible experi-
mental working temperature of obtained boiling point
data. Ionic liquids, [C10mim][Tf2N], and [C12 mim][Tf2N]
were found to be readily distilled under 450 K and 1 Pa
pressure. Shortly after, the experimental vapor pressure
data were measured via the Knudsen method. Within the
temperature range of 458-517 K, the relationship be-
tween vapor pressure and temperature was obtained [36,
More recently, studies proved that a broader series of
ionic liquid of [Tf2N] anion could be distilled at 473-573
K under low pressure using the Kugelrohr apparatus [38].
Protic ionic liquids of trifluoroacetate or formate anion,
however, can be distilled more easily using the standard
method under normal pressure and temperature [39]. As
mentioned above, the Lewis acidity/basicity is believed
to produce the main effect on protic ionic liquids’ vola-
tile property [33].
From assuming a “non-distillable” property to discov-
ering a large number of distillable ionic liquids, it is
needless to predict that the non-volatile advantage of
ionic liquids is diminishing. However, all these observa-
tions broaden the field of ionic liquid property research
and may lead to wider applications.
3. Are Ionic Liquids Really that Green?
Because of ionic liquids’ “immeasurably” low vapor
pressure under normal conditions [10], they are consid-
ered as “greener” solvents rather than volatile organic
compounds (VOCs) that emit pollution to the atmosphere.
This “greenness”, however, merely satisfies certain parts
of the 12 principles of Green Chemistry [40] if ionic liq-
uids are used in chemical processes. Unfortunately, this
has been misinterpreted as possessing broader green prop-
erties such as low toxicity and biodegradability. It should
be noted that a considerable number of precursors to ionic
liquids were labeled as toxic and environmentally haz-
ardous, and the toxicity and biodegradability of ionic liq-
uids generated thereof require further investigation.
Looking into the hazards involved in using ionic liq-
uids was not attempted until 2003 [41]. The authors of
the study theoretically used the structure-activity rela-
tionship to discuss the toxicity and ecotoxicity of a selec-
tion of commonly used ILs. The direct toxicity analyses
of ILs followed thereafter, mainly using bacteria or cells
as targets. Examples included vibrio fischeri and WST-1
cell [42,43], human tumor cell line HeLa [44], latic acid-
producing bacteria as lactobacillus rhamnosus [45,46],
Revisiting Characteristics of Ionic Liquids: A Review for Further Application Development
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JEP
Escherichia coli, Pichia pastoris and Bacillus cereus
[47], Caenorhabditis elegans [48], and acetylcholineste-
rase [49].
The acute toxic effects of ILs on various high forms of
organisms, plant or animals, were likewise tested; these
included algae,[50] Daphnia magan [51], zebrafish (da-
nio rerio) [52], rabbits [53], fresh water snails [54], and
zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha) [55]. Different
ionic liquids displayed diverse toxicity to the bio subjects
used in the said research. In addition, various method-
ologies were developed and investigated for better un-
derstanding of this toxicity issue, such as the quantitative
structure-property relationship modeling [56], lipophilic-
ity, and metabolic pathway prediction of ILs [57].
Despite various efforts to discover whether or not
ionic liquids are toxic, as well as the possible extent of
toxicity, researchers have yet to arrive at a clear answer
because of acceptors’ and ILs’ variability. In certain
reports, for example, compared with traditional sol-
vents, imidazolium-based ionic liquids are reportedly
more toxic to microorganisms [43]. However, a number
of reports claim that the lactic acid-producing bacte-
rium still grows faster in the presence of imida-
zolium-based ionic liquids than in hexane [45]. Certain
primitive trends on the commonly used ionic liquids
were found, such as an increase in toxicity of aquatic
organisms as the number of nitrogen atoms in the ca-
tion increases [56].
The biodegradability of ILs are similarly an object of
research interest, and the Closed Bottle Test (OECD
301D) is commonly used to administer the biodegrad-
ability test. At present, the biodegradability of traditional
non-functionalized ILs, such as those based on [C4mim]+,
are hard to be biotic-degraded [58]; and the abiotic deg-
radation is found to be impossible for [C4mim][BF4] [59].
Despite the fact that many ionic liquids exhibit toxicity
and create a negative impact on the environment, it
should be remembered that certain parts of toxic ILs are
not necessarily indicating that all the ILs are toxic. Fur-
thermore, ionic liquids in principle can be modified to be
non-toxic. Previous studies have reported that ILs can be
obtained from biodegradable and renewable resources
[60-68]. With infinite possibilities for designing ionic
liquids, the authors of this study are optimistic that IL
can be designed to be non-toxic, readily degradable, and
even edible. For example, the following shown ionic
liquids can be classified as “readily biodegradable” [69]
(Scheme 2). It is also possible to design ionic liquid pos-
sessing a toxicity level that serves a specific need. For
instance, ionic liquids extraction of Para Red and Sudan
dyes from chilli powder, chilli oil and food additive
combined with high performance liquid chromatography
has been reported very recently [70], which shows appli-
cation potentials of ILs in food industries, especially in
analytical applications [71,72].
Scheme 2. Biodegradable pyridinium ionic liquids
Until now, the toxicity related investigation is still a
hot topic concerning safety issue of ionic liquids, among
which detailed research activities are carried out con-
tinuously [73-75]. A Agar Diffusion Test has also been
developed for clarification of biocompatibility of wa-
ter-miscible ionic liquids [76].
4. Do Ionic Liquids have high Polarity?
Polarity is a physical property of compounds related to
other physical properties such as melting and boiling
points, solubility, and intermolecular interactions [77].
Ionic liquids have been considered as polar solvents,
such as those suitable for charged compounds, possibly
because of their ionic nature.
The first polarity investigation of ionic liquids using
the solvatochromic dye method emerged in 2000, postu-
lating that imidazolium-based ILs possess a polarity
similar to lower alcohols [78]. Various methods were
subsequently developed to determine the polarity of ILs,
such as fluorescent dye method [79,80], EPR spectros-
copy [81], 2-nitrocyclohexanone tautomerism method
[82], microwave spectroscopy [83], FT-IR spectroscopic
probe (Fe(CO)5) [84], and FT-IR combined with density
functional calculations (DFT) [85]. These different me-
thods resulted in accordance, but a definitive standard
has not been established for ionic liquid polarity. How-
ever, all these tests revealed that ILs were not as polar as
expected. On the contrary, they demonstrated considera-
bly low polarity [86].
The polarity of ILs is responsible for their ability to
dissolve solutes. The solubility of many non-polar sub-
stances in ILs, including hydrogen [87], carbon monox-
ide [88], and fullerene [89], has been tested. It has been
found that hydrogen and carbon monoxide possessed
solubility that is quite higher than what was initially ex-
pected. In the case of ionic liquid of cation with long
alkyl chain, the solubility of H2 is higher than non-polar
organic solvents like benzene. C60 can likewise be dis-
solved in ILs at concentration of up to 0.1 mg/ml. There
are as well reports on the CH4 dissolution into low- po-
larity designed ILs [90].
It is reasonable to state that ILs can dissolve not only
polar solutes or charged solute via ionic liquid structure
design, but also various non-polar compounds. However,
a more comprehensive investigation on solute–solvent
interactions has yet to be performed.
Revisiting Characteristics of Ionic Liquids: A Review for Further Application Development
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JEP
5. Can Ionic Liquids Coordinate?
A decade ago, ILs were generally perceived as non-co-
ordinating, which implied that their anions were non-
coordinating as well [6-13]. Various scientific publica-
tions have postulated that ILs were “poorly coordinating”
or “weakly coordinating” [91]. However, recent reports
have claimed that ILs are indeed coordinating [92-94].
The coordinating ability is a tendency to donate elec-
tron(s) to form a chemical bond [95]. In traditional imi-
dazolium IL systems, the cationic part displays minor
coordinating ability, thus the coordinating abilities are
determined by the anionic part [96]. The chloride or
bromide displays strong coordinating abilities, and this is
reflected in many crystallographic studies as well as
NMR and IR studies [97,98]. For other anions, however,
especially those that reduce the viscosities and melting
points of ionic liquids (e.g., [BF4]-, [SO3CF3]-), there is
little evidence obtained from X-ray crystallography. De-
localization of the negative charge within the anionic
core structure (e.g., O-S-N-S-O for [Tf2N]-, O-S-O for
[SO3CF3]-) accounts for the weak columbic attraction
between the anion and the weakly acidic organic cations
(i.e., low lattice energy and low melting points). They are
assumed to be non-coordinating because the negative
charge is highly delocalized over electron-negative fluo-
rine atoms.
However, as the chemistry of ILs continued to advance,
there rose evidences that even the above-mentioned ILs
demonstrate coordinating abilities towards main group
metals and transition metals. Recent studies of several
commonly used ILs through in situ re-crystallization
suggest that the intermolecular C-H···F interactions are
likewise commonly present in these ILs. The hydrogen
bonding network differs depending on the anions, from
[BF4]-, [PF6]-, to [Tf2N]-, [SO3CF3]- [99]. Prior to this
work, C-H···F interactions were equally found in other
ionic liquids with [SO3CF3] anion [100]. From the fact
that these ILs can donate electrons to H atoms, it is
reasonable to imply that they can likewise coordinate
to Lewis acidic metals and exhibit a coordinating
The coordinating abilities of ILs have been utilized in
various processes as well. An interesting example is that
[BF4] anion exhibits a coordinating ability towards BF3;
this process has been successfully used in the storage and
Scheme 3. Anion coordination of imidazolium ionic liquids
transport of highly toxic gases such as BF3 [101,102]. It
is believed that the fluorine atoms in the anion can inter-
act as donor to the boron atom of the BF3 molecule, and a
Lewis acid and base complex can be formed through this
process. In another example, the [CH3BF3(CH2)2CN]
anion displays coordination ability towards potassium
[103] (Scheme 3).
The coordinating abilities of [PF6] anions was investi-
gated and compared with the molecular solvents di-
chloromethane [91]. Owing to the coordinating behavior
of the [PF6] anion, the IL of [PF6]- can be successfully
used as both catalyst and solvent for olefin polymeriza-
tion and ethane oligomerization to higher α-olefins by
cation catalysts [91]. The mechanism is believed to be
the coordination of F atoms in the [PF6] anion, which
activates the olefin. Polymerization can thus be induced
in the presence of a nickel catalyst (Scheme 4).
Anion [Tf2N] has been frequently used as ionic liquid
anion to reduce IL viscosity; this can improve ionic con-
ductivity as well. To date, its rich coordination chemistry
remains unexplored. However, recent studies suggest that
[Tf2N] is a versatile coordinating anion that can interact
with transition metals in various modes. For example,
N-methyl-N-propylpyrrolidinium bis (triflouromethanesu-
fonyl) imide [92] reacts with YbI2, creating a complex in
which the [Tf2N] anions coordinate with the Yb center in a
chelating mode using the two oxygen atoms as donors. The
cation was included in the final structure to balance the
charge. The O-Yb distances were between 241.0 to 251.7
pm, the latter being the longest among all complexes with
Yb-O bonds. All the ligands showed cissoids conformation
with respect to the CF3 groups (Scheme 5).
With transition metals, Ti, Fe, Ru, and [Tf2N] anions
can use its donor O or N to coordinate metal centers
2-O, O, or
2-O, N, chelating or
mono-complexes [104,105] (Scheme 6).
Ionic liquids appear to coordinate from birth and it
should be noted that ionic liquids can be designed to co-
ordinate deliberately by incorporating coordination
groups. Ionic liquids containing various coordinating
functionalities that can coordinate to main group metals
and transition metals were reported.i This has evoked a
change in ionic liquid chemistry. These functionalized
ionic liquids have been successfully used in catalysis,
coordination polymers, and gas-absorption. This aspect
had been reviewed previously [4]. Apart from the cation
coordinating ILs, a number of ILs bearing coordination
groups in the anion have likewise been reported [106].
6. Stable Versus Energetic
The stability of a very limited number of ionic liquids
has been misleadingly accorded to all ionic liquids. In
fact, the earliest examples based on [AlCl4] anions were
extremely air-sensitive, so much so that their application
has been very limited [107,108].
Strong N+N
Revisiting Characteristics of Ionic Liquids: A Review for Further Application Development
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JEP
Scheme 4. Coordination of BF4, R-BF3 and PF6
Scheme 5. Yb complex with [Tf2N] anion
Scheme 6. Coordination modes of [Tf2N] anion with transi-
tion metals, M = Fe, Ti, Ru
The stable generation ILs represented by 1, 3-dialkyl
imidazolium salts with [BF4], [PF6] anions are indeed
thermally stable compounds that will not decompose
below 300. The high thermal stability has been an ad-
Scheme 7. Energetic ionic liquids
vantage in many applications. However, there have been
reports alleging that they decompose when heated in the
presence of water, thus emitting HF [109].
Detailed stability studies on ILs have been extensively
reported and reviewed [66,110,111]. Imidazolium-based
ILs are not stable under basic conditions. In the presence
of strong bases, they decompose to produce Manich-
elimination products [112]. Phosphonium ILs are more
inert against strong bases, so that reactions using strong
bases, such as Grignard reagents, can be carried out
among phosphonium ILs. The results, however, are not
better than molecular solvents such as THF [113]. In fact,
stability can also been obtained through ionic liquid
structure design. For example, a series of geminal dica-
tionic ionic liquids were reported, among which the sta-
ble range can be –4 to 400 [114].
Meanwhile, ILs can be designed as unstable yet ener-
getic [100,115-119]. For example, Shreeve et al. have
designed and synthesized a series of triazolium, tetraa-
zolium- based ILs, especially those with [ClO4] and [NO3]
anions (Scheme 7) that can be exposed at considerably
low temperature so that they can be used as energetic
materials [120-123]. These works have been covered in a
recent review [124]. It is important to emphasize that in
general, organic nitrates and perchlorates are potentially
explosive, especially when rigorously dried. Although no
problems have been reported to date, care should be tak-
en at all times when handling these. It has been reported
that a large number of ILs, including commercially
available ILs, are combustible owing to the positive heat
formation, oxygen content, and decomposition products
Figure 1. Discovery of innovative properties of IL-inducing novel applications
N+NO4Cl -
Revisiting Characteristics of Ionic Liquids: A Review for Further Application Development
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. JEP
It is important to note that there is a significant number
of functionalized ILs that are now available, though their
stability has not been routinely investigated.
7. Perspectives
This review aims to arrive at a gradual understanding of
the following knowledge on IL properties, which is con-
tinuously being updated:
1) Some ionic liquids can be readily distilled.
2) Some ionic liquids are proven toxic and envi-
ronmentally hazardous.
3) Some ionic liquids are low polar.
4) Ionic liquids are normally coordinating.
5) Ionic liquid stability can be controlled through
molecular design.
All these changes demonstrate a quiet but ongoing
transformation in our understanding of IL properties.
Instead of arresting the development of IL applications,
the realization and deeper understanding of IL properties
can lead to innovation and application to more fields, as
illustrated in Figure 1.
8. Acknowledgements
This work is supported by the National Basic Research
Program, or 973 Program, of P. R. China (project number:
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