Researchers at the University of Southern Denmark have created a new crystalline material capable of absorbing and storing large concentrations of oxygen. A simple 10-liter bucket air could leave a room with no oxygen! At first glance, it seems like the diabolical invention of any superhero’s enemy or a sophisticated military weapon, but its purpose goes in other way. This material can release the oxygen locked inside when and where needed so that, for example, it could help lung patients that are nowadays forced to carry heavy tanks to breathe, or diving enthusiasts that also carry them on their backs. Instead of the heavy ‘rucksack’, those people’d have to carry only a few grams!
The fact that a substance can react to oxygen is not surprising. Lots of substances do: food can turn rancid when exposed to oxygen; the taste and aroma of a wine change subtly when it’s being aired… and of course, our body can’t function if we don’t breathe. But what’s special about this material is that it doesn’t react irreversibly with oxygen. It absorbs it, but is also able to store it as long as it’s necessary and release it when needed, as if it was a bag of artificial hemoglobin.
According to researchers, the material can absorb and release oxygen many times without losing its ability, in the same way a sponge works. The release of oxygen is produced by a gentle heating of the material or subjecting it to low pressure. “We now wonder if light can also be used as a trigger for the material to release oxygen, which has perspectives in the growing field of artificial photosynthesis“, says Christine McKenzie, author of the study.
The key component of the new material is cobalt, which is bonded in a specially designed organic molecule. “Cobalt gives the new material the molecular and electronic structure, allowing it to absorb oxygen from the environment. This mechanism is well known for all breathing beings on earth: humans and many other species use iron, while other animals, such as crabs and spiders, use copper. Small amounts of metals are essential for the absorption of oxygen, so it’s really not all that surprising to see this effect in our new material, “explains McKenzie.
Depending on the atmospheric oxygen content, temperature, pressure, etc., seconds, minutes, hours or days are required for this substance to absorb oxygen in the environment. Different versions of the material are bonded to the oxygen at different speeds. So it’s possible to produce devices that release and absorb oxygen in different circumstances; for example, a mask containing layers of this material in the proper sequence could actively provide oxygen to a person directly from the air without the aid of pumps or high pressure equipment.
“This could be valuable for lung patients that today must carry heavy oxygen tanks with themselves. And also divers could leave their tanks for a day at home and instead get from this material filtered oxygen from the air or water around. A few grains contain enough oxygen to breathe. That’s all you need to bring, “McKenzie explains.