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Scientists make "Impossible Material" ... by accident

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July 30, 2013

A sample of Upsalite

A sample of Upsalite

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In an effort to create a more viable material for drug delivery, a team of researchers has accidentally created an entirely new material thought for more than 100 years to be impossible to make. 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 tells Gizmag. That's roughly equal to the sail area of a megayacht. Aside from using substantially less energy to create drier environments for producing electronics, batteries and pharmaceuticals, Upsalite could also be used to clean up oil spills, toxic waste and residues.

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 tells us. "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.

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.

Its unique pore structure also opens up new applications in drug delivery. The pores can host drugs that need protection from the environment before being delivered to the human body. It's also useful in thermal insulation, drying residues from oil and gas industries, and as a dessicant for humidity control. Potential applications are still being discovered as the material undergoes development for industrial use.

The team at Uppsala University is commercializing Upsalite through their spin-off company Disruptive Materials. An article describing the material and its properties can be found at PLOS ONE.

Source: Disruptive Materials

About the Author
Lakshmi Sandhana When Lakshmi first encountered pig's wings in a petri dish, she realized that writing about scientists and imagineers was the perfect way to live in an expanding mind bubble. Articles for Wired, BBC Online, New Scientist, The Economist and Fast Company soon followed. She's currently pursuing her dream of traveling from country to country to not only ferret out cool stories but also indulge outrageously in local street foods. When not working, you'll find her either buried nose deep in a fantasy novel or trying her hand at improvisational comedy.   All articles by Lakshmi Sandhana
23 Comments

It's amazing how many times important discoveries have been made by accident!

Joel Detrow
30th July, 2013 @ 11:02 am PDT

Some of the biggest discoveries have come from failed experiments.

In 1856, William Henry Perkin, 18 years old, was challenged by his professor to come up with a way to synthesize quinine for treating malaria.

While cleaning the glassware with alcohol after a failure, he noticed it turned a brilliant shade of purple. Having kept notes of the process he was able to duplicate the result, launching the synthetic color industry with 3-amino-2,±9-dimethyl-5-phenyl-7-(p-tolylamino)phenazinium acetate.

Gregg Eshelman
30th July, 2013 @ 07:18 pm PDT

Micro thong pads

Andrew Zuckerman
30th July, 2013 @ 07:31 pm PDT

I'm with Andrew - this material will almost overnight revolutionise the tampon and lady-pad industry! As an 'older' man (think prostate) it would also be ideal for us, easily made into a concealable liner for jocks or boxer shorts. More power to the 'accidental genius'!

The Skud
30th July, 2013 @ 08:33 pm PDT

Scientific progress goes "boink". :-)

True Romaine Spence
31st July, 2013 @ 04:44 am PDT

Finally, an area comparison we can all relate to - the sails on our megayachts! It is nice to have a break from all those supercar articles, too. Who needs more than half a dozen ?

Bob Stuart
31st July, 2013 @ 06:57 am PDT

I just hope that the kitty litter filler is produced from used drug delivery material, rather than the other way around.

f8lee
31st July, 2013 @ 09:19 am PDT

Should make a effective water filter as well.

BB2
31st July, 2013 @ 09:25 am PDT

Will I be able to get rid on my not-so-user-friendly dehumidifier down in the basement? Will they make a 'brick' of this miracle for me to use instead?

K
31st July, 2013 @ 09:34 am PDT

Can it be used to store heat or hydrogen? I would like to store the heat of summer to be used in winter and the reverse cheaply.

doug9694
31st July, 2013 @ 10:12 am PDT

I wonder if it would be possible to use this material to fill a hydrogen fuel tank so it can hold in increased amounts of hydrogen gas. If so, the automotive industry might be very excited about this material ! There is a similar material made from heated feathers that is able to hold large amounts hydrogen gas.

Durhamhs
31st July, 2013 @ 10:59 am PDT

I wonder if it can be used in low pressure absorption storage for the natural gas industry. To date I think the best nano-structured carbon absorbent material was carbonized corn cobs. I don't know what the nano pore count is of that material but if magnesium carbonate surpasses it then even higher density, medium pressure tanks for transportation and gas recovery could be huge winners.

Jim Friedl
31st July, 2013 @ 11:01 am PDT

doug, you can view absorbency as a phase tradition from an energy use and storage standpoint - so you could use this as part of an energy cycle. I doubt it will have energy storage characteristics worth noting, though it could have interesting capacitive properties if it is at all conductive (or be a good substrate for vapor deposition ultra-capacitors).

Charles Bosse
31st July, 2013 @ 11:45 am PDT

it may enhance solar power systems.

frogola
31st July, 2013 @ 12:25 pm PDT

Amazing! There are SO many applications for something like this. And there has to be a way to use this to make more complex multi-layered computer chips.

And sorry to go here, but that scientist Maria Strømme is smoking hot! Brilliant AND beautiful. She's like the perfect woman.

dandrews1138
31st July, 2013 @ 12:27 pm PDT

If I remember correctly, fly ash and silica fume do their job making high strength concrete because they're small particles with a very large surface area. I also recall needing to keep concrete damp for a couple weeks after pouring it to help it cure properly. I wonder about Upsalite as a concrete admixture.

John Banister
31st July, 2013 @ 02:07 pm PDT

I'm surprised no one mentioned of the most obvious and possibly revolutionary uses for such a porous material.

How about increased energy storage for much more powerful and much faster charging batteries?

With this can it finally be that electric cars of the near future, might charge up as fast as a gas pump could fill the tank of a gas powered car?

If I were the head of Tesla Motors, I would be experimenting with this as soon as I could possibly get some of it.

Fusiontek
31st July, 2013 @ 07:25 pm PDT

What a great name! short for Upsala salt lite.

Henry Van Campa
31st July, 2013 @ 10:22 pm PDT

So I guess this means they failed at creating the material they needed for more efficient drug delivery.

Derrick Mains
1st August, 2013 @ 09:30 am PDT

I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. What is the downside of this wondrous, accidentally-created material? What keeps it from forming naturally on the earth since it's made from earthbound elements?

Instead of looking for new drug delivery methods, why not hip people to the healing, life-preserving effects of simply eating fresh, whole raw foods? If you want to live, stop eating things that are DEAD!!

Kim Armstead
1st August, 2013 @ 10:45 am PDT

Hi,

Congratulation for this wonderful material.

I am an architect. I want to know about thermal properties of this wonderful material. You said that it will be used as an insulation.

Best,

Helia Taheri

Tehran, Iran

Helia Taheri
1st August, 2013 @ 11:27 am PDT

How much energy to get the moisture back out. if it is low enough it might make Swamp Coolers practical even in humid environments.

re; Durhamhs

Even without the storage issues hydrogen is lousy fuel.

Slowburn
1st August, 2013 @ 12:51 pm PDT

As much as I see a place for structured science I still think we need a department dedicated to scientists just fucking around. The number of supposedly impossible things that have been created completely by going against the protocol leads me to believe a fucking around department could in fact accelerate science to a whole new level!

Scot Warner
1st August, 2013 @ 03:15 pm PDT
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