Swedish Researchers Make "Impossible Material" By Accident

Swedish Researchers Make "Impossible Material" By Accident

In an effort to create a more viable material for drug delivery, Uppsala University researchers have created an unprecedented material with record-breaking properties. This new material, Upsalite, thought for more than 100 years to be impossible to make but it came into existence as the result of an accident in the lab.
Upsalite is a magnesium carbonate material that has already broken world records with its surface area and water absorption abilities.

Upsalite is a new form of non-toxic magnesium carbonate with an extremely porous surface area which allows it to absorb more moisture at low humidities than any other known material. "The total area of the pore walls of one gram of material would cover 800 square meters (8611 sq ft) if you would 'roll them out'", Maria Strømme, Professor of Nanotechnology at the Uppsala University, Sweden told. That's roughly equal to the sail area of a megayacht. This puts the material in a very exclusive class of porous, high surface area materials that includes silica, zeolites, metal organic frameworks and carbon nanotubes. The research team also found that the material was filled with empty pores, which gives it a unique way of interacting with the environment. For example, Upsalite can absorb more water at low relative humidities than any other currently available material.
Scientists have long puzzled over this particular form of magnesium carbonate since it doesn't normally occur in nature and has defied synthesis in laboratories. Until now, its properties have remained a mystery. Strømme confesses that they didn't actually set out to create it. "We were really into making a porous calcium carbonate for drug delivery purposes and wanted to try to make a similarly porous magnesium carbonate since we knew that magnesium carbonate was non-toxic and already approved for drug delivery," she told. "We tried to use the same process as with the calcium carbonate, totally unaware of the fact that researchers had tried to make disordered magnesium carbonates for many decades using this route without succeeding."

The breakthrough came when they tweaked the process a little and accidentally left the material in the reaction chamber over a weekend. On their return they found a new gel in place. "We realized that the material we had made was one that had been claimed impossible to make," Strømme adds. A year spent refining the process gave them Upsalite.

A sample of Upsalite

While creating a theoretical material sounds like cause for celebration, Strømme says the major scientific breakthrough is to be found in its amazing properties. No other known carbonate has a surface area as large as 800 sq m per gram. Though scientists have created many new high surface area materials with nanotechnology, such as carbon nanotubes and zeolites, what makes Upsalite special is the minuteness of its nanopores.

Each nanopore is less than 10 nanometers in diameter which results in one gram of the material having a whopping 26 trillion nanopores. "If a material has many small pores," explains Strømme, "it gives the material a very large surface area per gram, which gives the material many reaction sites, i.e. sites that can react with the environment, with specific chemicals, or in the case of Upsalite, with moisture."

Upsalite's moisture absorption properties are striking. It was found to absorb 20 times more moisture than fumed silica, a material used for cat box fillers and as an anti-caking agent for moisture control during the transport of moisture sensitive goods. This means that you'd need 20 times less material to do the moisture control job.

The magnesium carbonate material that has been given the name Upsalite is foreseen 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 ware houses. It can also be used for collection of toxic waste, chemicals or oil spill and in drug delivery systems, for odor 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," says Johan Goméz de la Torre, researcher at the Nanotechnology and Functional Materials Division.
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Write by: RC - Tuesday, July 30, 2013

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