Scientists jumped out of a plane to create a new wonder material

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

Everything is made from some form of material, whether it be organic or inorganic, which means the right breakthroughs can change industries forever.

 

Most people don’t care about materials – even self-healing materials, or state of the art programmable materials, or materials that will help us realise hypersonic flight. And they care even less about a type of nanomaterial called Metal Organic Frameworks, or MOF’s for short, which are now one of the fastest growing and most innovative class of materials in chemistry these days, and now Dr. J. J. Richardson and his team from the University of Melbourne in Australia have made a breakthrough that makes these wonder materials even better, and means it could help usher in breakthroughs in everything from energy to healthcare.

 

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“They’re special because they have giant gaps in them, so they can act kind of like a nano-sponge or a nano-sieve,” J.J. explains. Their spongy quality means that MOFs can be used to both extract and deliver substances, for instance, removing greenhouse gases from fossil fuels and carbon capture, or targeted drug delivery, whether it’s delivered using nanobots like these brain controlled ones, or by more traditional means.

Their ability to remove greenhouse gases, for example, at scale is huge because just one gram of these materials has more surface area than an entire football pitch – and it’s this trait more than any other that makes them incredibly interesting and that opens up millions of potential use cases for the technology. However, while there are already a few hundred different shapes that these MOF’s come in the researchers wanted to see if there was a way they could get even more bang for their buck and design even better MOF’s, and one of the things they decided to play about with was growing MOF crystals in low, or zero gravity. Something that’s increasingly attractive as entrepreneurs, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos toy with the idea of moving manufacturing off Earth and into space.

“Crystals normally have defects in them… and so NASA wanted to see how they grow in the perfect conditions of outer space,” J.J. recounts. “When we grow crystals in that, we don’t have an up or a down, and the crystals can grow in every direction very cleanly and uniformly.”

 

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Since finding a low-gravity environment in which to experiment can be a tall order here on Earth, J.J. turned to the only logical option – skydiving.

“We were in free fall for about 30 seconds,” he recalls. “We had two guys on the ground. They ran over, grabbed the samples, spun them down, washed them to stop the crystal growth so we wouldn’t get any artifacts. It was a really smooth operation.”

The results of this lofty experiment were decisive – low gravity yielded larger and more perfect crystals.

MOFs are considered miracle materials because their customizable crystalline structures yield huge surface areas. The larger the MOF, the more potential for storage and catalysis. That’s why these materials can be applied to anything from carbon capture as mentioned above, to artificial photosynthesis, to next-generation batteries and electronics.

 

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“Big, perfect crystals are important for everyday life for pharmaceuticals, for energy… so this research potentially has impacts all over,” said J.J. “The good thing with some of the research we’re working on, is that it will help everybody across the world, rather than very small segments of society. And we really want to have that broad, positive impact.”

Source: Seeker

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