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.

 

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
football This was Kane’s night, even if he played just a small part of it
Travel
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
News
news
News
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
media
News
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
people
Voices
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
News
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
news
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss