‘Synthetic’ material also occurs in Russian coal mines

One of the hottest new materials is a class of porous solids known as metal-organic frameworks, or MOFs. Scientists around the world are working on ways to use the synthetic materials for things like hydrogen storage, carbon sequestration, or photovoltaics.

MOFs were introduced in the 1990s. Now, scientists have made a surprising discovery: MOFs also exist in nature, albeit in the form of rare minerals found so far only in Siberian coal mines.

The finding, published in the journal Science Advances, “completely changes the normal view of these highly popular materials as solely artificial, ‘designer’ solids,” says senior author Tomislav Friščić, an associate professor of chemistry at McGill University. “This raises the possibility that there might be other, more abundant, MOF minerals out there.”

crystal structure
A fragment of the crystal structure of the natural zhemchuzhnikovite mineral. (Credit: Luzia Germann, Dinnebier Research Group, MPI Stuttgart and Igor Huskić, Friščić Research Group, McGill University)

The twisting path to the discovery began six years ago, when Friščić came across a mention of the minerals stepanovite and zhemchuzhnikovite in a Canadian mineralogy journal. The crystal structure of the minerals, found in Russia between the 1940s and 1960s, hadn’t been fully determined. But the Russian mineralogists who discovered them had analyzed their chemical composition and the basic parameters of their structures, using a technique known as X-ray powder diffraction. To Friščić, those parameters hinted that the minerals could be structurally similar to a type of human-made MOF.

His curiosity piqued, Friščić began looking for samples of the rare minerals, reaching out to experts, museums, and vendors in Russia and elsewhere. After a promising lead with a mining museum in Saint Petersburg failed to pan out, Igor Huskić, a graduate student in the Friščić research group at McGill turned his attention to synthesizing analogues of the minerals in the lab—and succeeded. But a major journal last year declined to publish the team’s work, in part because the original description of the minerals had been reported in a somewhat obscure Russian mineralogical journal.

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Then, the McGill chemists caught a break: with the help of a crystallographer colleague in Venezuela, they connected with two prominent Russian mineralogists: Sergey Krivovichev, a professor at Saint Petersburg State University, and Professor Igor Pekov of Lomonosov Moscow State University.

Krivovichev and Pekov were able to obtain the original samples of the two rare minerals, which had been found decades earlier in a coal mine deep beneath the Siberian permafrost. The Russian experts were also able to determine the crystal structures of the minerals. These findings confirmed the McGill researchers’ initial results from their lab synthesis.

The discovery of MOF structures in the two rare minerals already is “paradigm-changing.”

Stepanovite and zhemchuzhnikovite have the elaborate, honeycomb-like structure of MOFs, characterized at the molecular level by large voids. The two minerals aren’t, however, representative of the hottest varieties of MOFs—those that are being developed for use in hydrogen-fueled cars or to capture waste carbon dioxide.

As a result, Friščić and his collaborators are now broadening their research to determine if other, more abundant minerals have porous structures that could make them suitable for uses such as hydrogen storage or even drug delivery.

In any event, the discovery of MOF structures in the two rare minerals already is “paradigm-changing,” Friščić says. If scientists had been able to determine those structures in the 1960s, he notes, the development of MOF materials “might have been accelerated by 30 years.”

Funding for the research came from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies, and Saint Petersburg State University.

Source: McGill University

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Source: Futurity