Scientists Created an Impossible Supermaterial Totally by Accident
For more than a century, scientists have been saying the same thing: It’s impossible to create a water-free disordered magnesium carbonate. It’s too difficult. You’ll never amount to anything! Well, suck it, haters: Researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden have unveiled a super-absorbent version of magnesium carbonate that breaks the world record for surface area and water absorption.
They call their miracle material Upsalite, and it's a form of magnesium carbonate—the inorganic salt used in everything from chalk to laxatives. Upsalite, however, has an incredibly high surface area, which is an extremely attractive quality since it means a material can absorb extra liquids. "It turned out that Upsalite had the highest surface area measured for an alkali earth metal carbonate," explained scientist Maria Strømme in a press release, "800 square meters per gram."
Like so many other great discoveries, Upsalite was actually an accident. The team at Uppsala was attempting to create a similar material using a reaction chamber at their lab. After a wild friday night of reaction chamber antics, they accidentally left some material inside the machine. When they returned, they found a material unlike any they'd ever seen:
"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 Goméz de la Torre. "A year of detailed materials analysis and fine tuning of the experiment followed." One of the researchers got to take advantage of his Russian skill since some of the chemistry details necessary for understanding the reaction mechanism was only available in an old Russian PhD thesis.
What does Upsalite look like under a microscope? Imagine a surface of incredibly dense, empty pores, each with a diameter smaller than ten nano meters—which explains why it's so absorbent. It may eventually be used to keep electronics dry at smaller doses, or to clean up oil spills and toxic waste more safely. And to think it was entirely accidental.