This chemistry experiment conducted 4200 meters above Melbourne, Australia, could revolutionize how we scrub greenhouse gases or deliver targeted drugs.
Dr. J. J. Richardson and his team study nanomaterials called Metal-Organic Frameworks, which are considered the fastest-growing and most innovative class of materials in chemistry. “They're special because they have giant gaps in them, so they can act kind of like a nano-sponge or a nano-sieve,” J.J. explains. Their spongy quality means that MOFs can be used to both extract and deliver substances — for instance, removing greenhouse gases from fossil fuels, or targeted drug delivery.
“Crystals normally have defects in them… and so NASA wanted to see how they grow in the perfect conditions of outer space,” J.J. recounts. "When we grow crystals in that, we don't have an up or a down, and the crystals can grow in every direction very cleanly and uniformly.” Since finding a low-gravity environment in which to experiment can be a tall order here on Earth, J.J. turned to the only logical option: skydiving.
“We were in free fall for about 30 seconds,” he recalls. "We had two guys on the ground. They ran over, grabbed the samples, spun them down, washed them to stop the crystal growth so we wouldn't get any artifacts. It was a really smooth operation.” The results of this lofty experiment were decisive: low gravity yielded larger and more perfect crystals.
MOFs are considered miracle materials because their customizable crystalline structures yield huge surface areas. The larger the MOF, the more potential for storage and catalysis. That's why these materials can be applied to anything from carbon capture, to artificial photosynthesis, to next-generation batteries and electronics.
“Big, perfect crystals are important for everyday life for pharmaceuticals, for energy… so this research potentially has impacts all over,” J.J. told Seeker. “The good thing with some of the research we're working on, is that it will help everybody across the world, rather than very small segments of society. And we really want to have that broad, positive impact.”