RMIT technique makes MOFs in minutes

Researchers from RMIT University in Australia have demonstrated a novel method of quickly producing metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) that avoids high temperatures or chemical solvents.

Dr. Heba Ahmed holding a MOF created with high-frequency sound waves (Credit: RMIT University)

MOFs are versatile and super porous nanomaterials that can be used for sensing and trapping substances at minute concentrations or for purification of water or air. According to RMIT, MOFs can also hold large amounts of energy, for making better batteries and energy storage devices.

Scientists have designed more than 88,000 precisely-customised MOFs – with applications ranging from agriculture to pharmaceuticals – but the traditional process for creating them is said to be environmentally unsustainable and can take several hours or even days. The new technique can produce a customised MOF in minutes.

Dr Heba Ahmed, lead author of the study published in Nature Communications, said the efficient and scaleable method harnessed the precision power of high-frequency sound waves.

“MOFs have boundless potential, but we need cleaner and faster synthesis techniques to take full advantage of all their possible benefits,” said Ahmed, a postdoctoral researcher in RMIT’s Micro/Nanophysics Research Laboratory.

“Our acoustically-driven approach avoids the environmental harms of traditional methods and produces ready-to-use MOFs quickly and sustainably.

“The technique not only eliminates one of the most time-consuming steps in making MOFs, it leaves no trace and can be easily scaled up for efficient mass production.”

Metal-organic frameworks are crystalline powders full of molecular-sized holes. The internal surface area of a gram of a MOF would cover an area larger than a football pitch.

During the standard production process, solvents and other contaminants become trapped in the MOF’s holes. To flush them out, scientists use a combination of vacuum and high temperatures or chemical solvents in a process called activation.

In their novel technique, RMIT researchers used a microchip to produce high-frequency sound waves.

Co-author and acoustic expert Dr Amgad Rezk said these sound waves, which are not audible to humans, can be used for precision micro- and nano-manufacturing.

“At the nano-scale, sound waves are powerful tools for the meticulous ordering and manoeuvring of atoms and molecules,” said Rezk.

The ingredients of a MOF – a metal precursor and a binding organic molecule – were exposed to the sound waves produced by the microchip.

Using the sound waves to arrange and link these elements together, the researchers were able to create a highly ordered and porous network, while simultaneously activating the MOF by pushing out the solvents from the holes.

Lead investigator, Distinguished Professor Leslie Yeo, said the new method produces MOFs with empty holes and a high surface area, eliminating the need for post-synthesis activation.

“Existing techniques usually take a long time from synthesis to activation but our approach not only produces MOFs within a few minutes, they are already activated and ready for direct application,” said Yeo, a Professor of Chemical Engineering and Director of the Micro/Nanophysics Research Laboratory at RMIT.

According to RMIT, the researchers successfully tested the approach on copper and iron-based MOFs, with the technique able to be expanded to other MOFs and scaled out for efficient green production of these smart materials.