Scientists accidentally make ‘impossible material’ Upsalite - the world’s most efficient water absorber

Human error solves problem of how to produce world’s most efficient water absorber more cheaply

It is so difficult to make that the researchers who first discovered it called it the “impossible material”.

Now a century later, a team of Swedish scientists have done the impossible by producing the substance known as Upsalite by accident – after leaving their equipment running over the weekend.

The breakthrough has far-reaching commercial applications, as Upsalite (named after the University of Uppsala, where the scientists are based) is the world’s most efficient water absorber, with potential to be used for the removal of moisture in drug creation and high-tech electronics to cleaning up huge oil spills.

A single gram of this elusive white, dry, powdered form of magnesium carbonate (MgCO3) has an extraordinarily-large surface area of 800 square meters thanks to numerous minuscule pores, each one a million times smaller than the width of a human hair.

“Upsalite absorbs more water and low relative humidities than the best materials presently available and can be regenerated with less energy consumption than is used in similar processes today,” said Maria Stromme, professor of nanotechnology at Uppsala University.

“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,” she said.

Other uses include ice hockey rinks, warehouses, the collection of toxic waste or chemical spills and odour control.

MgCO3 is also about as dry as a material can get, a property which, combined with a huge relative surface area that is inundated with pocket pores, makes it the world’s best mop. The only problem is that, until now, this absorbent form of magnesium carbonate could only be produced by a process that is so expensive and involves so much heat that it wasn’t remotely feasible to use it. While other members of the so-called “disordered carbonates” family could be produced more cheaply and simply – by bubbling carbon dioxide through a mixture containing alcohol – a group of German researchers claimed in 1908 that this method couldn’t be used to make dry MgCO3. And so they dubbed it the “impossible material”.

The irony is that although the Uppsala team had been trying to create the impossible material, they had been going about it the wrong way.

“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,” says Johan Gomez de la Torre.

The unwitting solution still involved bubbling the Co2 through the alcohol mixture, but at three times normal atmospheric pressure. A year of detailed analysis and experimental fine tuning followed, during which time it was discovered that when heated to 70C the resulting gel solidifies and collapses into a white and coarse powder.

“It became clear that we had indeed synthesised the material that previously had been claimed impossible to make. This places it in the exclusive class of porous, high surface area materials,” said Ms Stromme.

The findings have been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

 

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Richard Norris in GQ
mediaGQ features photo shoot with man who underwent full face transplant
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Your picture is everything in the shallow world of online dating
i100
News
The Swiss Re tower or 'Gherkin' was at one time the UK’s most expensive office when German bank IVG and private equity firm Evans Randall bought it
news
Life and Style
Attractive women on the Internet: not a myth
techOkCupid boasts about Facebook-style experiments on users
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Reconciliation Analyst

£200 - £250 per day: Orgtel: Reconciliation Analyst Gloucestershire

Soutions Architect TOGAF - Reading

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Excellent Corporate Benefits: Progressive Recruitm...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on