New material demonstrates record breaking properties

Researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden have developed a material claimed to have record breaking surface area and water adsorption properties.

The magnesium carbonate material, dubbed Upsalite, is expected to reduce the amount of energy needed to control environmental moisture in the electronics and drug formulation industry as well as in hockey rinks and warehouses. It can also be used for collection of toxic waste, chemicals or oil spill and in drug delivery systems, for odour control and sanitation after fire.

‘In contrast to what has been claimed for more than 100 years in the scientific literature, we have found that amorphous magnesium carbonate can be made in a very simple, low-temperature process,’ said Johan Goméz de la Torre, a researcher from the Nanotechnology and Functional Materials division at Uppsala.

While ordered forms of magnesium carbonate, both with and without water in the structure, are abundant in nature, water-free disordered forms have been proven extremely difficult to make. In 1908, German researchers claimed that the material could not be made in the same way as other disordered carbonates, namely by bubbling CO2 through an alcoholic suspension. Subsequent studies in 1926 and 1961 came to the same conclusion.

‘[On] A Thursday afternoon in 2011, we slightly changed the synthesis parameters of the earlier employed unsuccessful attempts, and by mistake left the material in the reaction chamber over the weekend. Back at work on Monday morning we discovered that a rigid gel had formed and after drying this gel we started to get excited,’ said Goméz de la Torre in a statement.

The material Upsalite shown at different scales
The material Upsalite shown at different scales

A year of detailed materials analysis and fine tuning of the experiment followed.

‘After having gone through a number of state-of-the-art materials characterisation techniques it became clear that we had indeed synthesised the material that previously had been claimed impossible to make,’ said Maria Strømme, professor of nanotechnology and head of the Nanotechnology and Functional Materials division.

The researchers discovered that Upsalite had the highest surface area measured for an alkali earth metal carbonate at 800 square metres per gram, placing the new material in the class of porous, high surface area materials including mesoporous silica, zeolites, metal organic frameworks, and carbon nanotubes, said Strømme.

In addition they found that the material was filled with empty pores all having a diameter smaller than 10nm. This pore structure is said to give the material a unique way of interacting with the environment, leading to a number of properties important for application of the material.

It is claimed that Upsalite was found to absorb more water at low relative humidities than the best materials presently available, a property that can be regenerated with less energy consumption than is used in similar processes today.

‘This, together with other unique properties of the discovered impossible material is expected to pave the way for new sustainable products in a number of industrial applications,’ said Strømme.

The results are published in PLOS ONE.