I’ve been talking about new technologies for fighting climate change, with an emphasis on negative carbon emissions. Now let’s begin looking at one technology in more detail. This will take a few articles. I want to start with the basics.
A metal-organic framework or MOF is a molecular structure built from metal atoms and organic compounds. There are many kinds. They can be 3-dimensional, like this one made by scientists at CSIRO in Australia:
And they can be full of microscopic holes, giving them an enormous surface area! For example, here’s a diagram of a MOF with yellow and orange balls showing the holes:
In fact, one gram of the stuff can have a surface area of more than 12,000 square meters!
Gas molecules like to sit inside these holes. So, perhaps surprisingly at first, you can pack a lot more gas in a cylinder containing a MOF than you can in an empty cylinder at the same pressure!
This lets us store gases using MOFs—like carbon dioxide, but also hydrogen, methane and others. And importantly, you can also get the gas molecules out of the MOF without enormous amounts of energy. Also, you can craft MOFs with different hole sizes and different chemical properties, so they attract some gases much more than others.
So, we can imagine various applications suited to fighting climate change! One is carbon capture and storage, where you want a substance that eagerly latches onto CO2 molecules, but can also easily be persuaded to let them go. But another is hydrogen or methane storage for the purpose of fuel. Methane releases less CO2 than gasoline does when it burns, per unit amount of energy—and hydrogen releases none at all. That’s why some advocate a hydrogen economy.
Could hydrogen-powered cars be better than battery-powered cars, someday? I don’t know. But never mind—such issues, though important, aren’t what I want to talk about now. I just want to quote something about methane storage in MOFs, to give you a sense of the state of the art.
• Mark Peplow, Metal-organic framework compound sets methane storage record, C&EN, 11 December 2017.
Cars powered by methane emit less CO2 than gasoline guzzlers, but they need expensive tanks and compressors to carry the gas at about 250 atm. Certain metal-organic framework (MOF) compounds—made from a lattice of metal-based nodes linked by organic struts—can store methane at lower pressures because the gas molecules pack tightly inside their pores.
So MOFs, in principle, could enable methane-powered cars to use cheaper, lighter, and safer tanks. But in practical tests, no material has met a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) gas storage target of 263 cm3 of methane per cm3 of adsorbent at room temperature and 64 atm, enough to match the capacity of high-pressure tanks.
A team led by David Fairen-Jimenez at the University of Cambridge has now developed a synthesis method that endows a well-known MOF with a capacity of 259 cm3 of methane per cm3 under those conditions, at least 50% higher than its nearest rival. “It’s definitely a significant result,” says Jarad A. Mason at Harvard University, who works with MOFs and other materials for energy applications and was not involved in the research. “Capacity has been one of the biggest stumbling blocks.”
Only about two-thirds of the MOF’s methane was released when the pressure dropped to 6 atm, a minimum pressure needed to sustain a decent flow of gas from a tank. But this still provides the highest methane delivery capacity of any bulk adsorbent.
A couple things are worth noting here. First, the process of a molecule sticking to a surface is called adsorption, not to be confused with absorption. Second, notice that using MOFs they managed to compress methane by a factor of 259 at a pressure of just 64 atmospheres. If we tried the same trick without MOFs we would need a pressure of 259 atmospheres!
But MOFs are not only good at holding gases, they’re good at sucking them up, which is really the flip side of the same coin: gas molecules avidly seek to sit inside the little holes of your MOF. So people are also using MOFs to build highly sensitive detectors for specific kinds of gases:
And some MOFs work in water, too—so people are trying to use them as water filters, sort of a high-tech version of zeolites, the minerals that inspired people to invent MOFs in the first place. Zeolites have an impressive variety of crystal structures:
and so on… but MOFs seem to be more adjustable in their structure and chemical properties.
Looking more broadly at future applications, we can imagine MOFs will be important in a host of technologies where we want a substance with lots of microscopic holes that are eager to hold specific molecules. I have a feeling that the most powerful applications of MOFs will come when other technologies mature. For example: projecting forward to a time when we get really good nanotechnology, we can imagine MOFs as useful “storage lockers” for molecular robots.
But next time I’ll talk about what we can do now, or soon, to capture carbon dioxide with MOFs.
In the meantime: can you imagine some cool things we could do with MOFs? This may feed your imagination:
• Wikipedia, Metal-organic frameworks.