Irish-led study discovers Swiss cheese-like material to capture gases

20 Feb 2023

Prof Michael Zaworotko. Image: Alan Place

Published in the Nature Chemistry journal last week, the international study has implications for the storage of important fuels and medicinal gases.

An Irish-led team of scientists have discovered a new material that can trap and store volatile gases such as hydrogen, oxygen and natural gas.

Led by Prof Michael Zaworotko of the Bernal Institute at University of Limerick (UL) and Dr Varvara Nikolayenko, the team has stumbled upon a new class of porous materials called ‘sorbents’ that can store volatile gases in safer and less energy-intensive ways.

The study was published in the Nature Chemistry journal last week and involves an international team of scientists from Ireland, Japan, South Africa and the United States.

One of its key findings is that the so-called ‘Swiss cheese’ sorbent expands when it is exposed to gases with very little structural rearrangement, thereby capturing increasingly large quantities of gas as pressure is increased.

This can prove vital to the current demand for finding better ways to store volatile fuels and medicinal gases such as hydrogen, natural gas, oxygen and nitric oxide – which currently require very high pressures or very low temperatures.

“Traditional sorbents have interconnected holes and pores like a sponge,” explained Zaworotko, who is currently a research professor and chair of crystal engineering at UL’s Bernal Institute.

“The new sorbents we have discovered are more like Swiss cheese in that they have empty space, but they are not interconnected by pores. Our new materials point towards an alternate approach to store such gases which is both less energy intensive and safer.”

Zaworotko has previously contributed to studies that led to the discovery of new materials can capture toxic chemicals from the air and even create water from thin air in the most remote of locations.

“The changes in the sorbent are reversible so the gas can be easily removed, and the sorbent can be recycled for further use,” added Nikolayenko, who is a former researcher at the Bernal Institute.

“It is counterintuitive to expect a sorbent which has no pores to have the ability to trap volatile gases. This raises the question of whether there are many more such sorbents that are hiding in plain sight.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic