Scientists Designed a Material that Already Existed in Nature

August 9, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Rare minerals similar to metal-organic frameworks found in Siberia
Photo credit: Igor Huskić, Friščić Research Group, McGill University

Rare minerals found in Siberia are highly similar to ‘designer’ solids.

In the 1990s, scientists developed a class of porous solid materials, called metal-organic frameworks (or MOFs), which can act as molecular sponges by soaking up gases.

Little did those scientists know that natural forms of their lab-made MOFs were sitting in Siberian coal mines all along. The discovery was recently made by researchers from Canada and Russia, who describe the MOF-like minerals stepanovite and zhemchuzhnikovite in an article published in Science Advances.

The artificial MOFs were originally intended for a range of applications, including capture of carbon dioxide use in hydrogen-fueled cars. Their characteristic honeycomb structure is shared by stepanovite and zhemchuzhnikovite, according to the study.

The fact that the same structures are found in Siberia "completely changes the normal view of these highly popular materials as solely artificial, 'designer' solids," said lead researcher Tomislav Friščić, from McGill University in Canada, in a press release.

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The recently described minerals had actually been discovered as early as the 1940s, but technology limitations of the time meant their structure could not be fully determined. Nonetheless, based on an old paper describing what was known of their structure, Friščić deduced that these minerals were similar to artificial MOFs.

Then, the researchers’ Russian collaborators managed to track down the original mineral samples and re-analyze them using up-to-date methods.

Though the structure of these particular minerals doesn’t match the most popular variety of MOFs — the ones set to be used for carbon capture — their discovery “raises the possibility that there might be other, more abundant, MOF minerals out there," says Friščić.

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