Man-made materials found to occur in nature

Individual crystals of synthetic zhemchuzhnikovite, McGill University. Image: Science Daily

Scientists in Canada and Russia have discovered rare minerals found in Siberian coal mines have similar structures to man-made metal-organic frameworks (MOFs).

MOFs – a class of porous solids – were developed during the 1990s and are one of the hottest new materials, with applications in gas storage and purification.

However, these have now been found in nature in the rare minerals stepanovite and zhemchuzhnikovite.

Associate chemistry professor at Montreal’s McGill University, Tomislav Friščić, said the discovery alters the view that the materials are “solely artificial, ‘designer’ solids”, according to a report by Science Daily.

“This raises the possibility that there might be other, more abundant, MOF minerals out there,” he said.

Friščić first encountered the rare minerals in a Canadian mineralogy journal six years ago. The minerals were discovered between the 1940s and 60s in Russia, with the basic parameters of their structures and their chemical composition leading Friščić to believe they could have the same structure as man-made MOFs. 

He then began searching for samples of the minerals, contacting two leading Russian mineralogists professor Igor Pekov from the Lomonosov Moscow State University, and Saint Petersburg State University professor, Sergey Krivovichev, who were able to get the original samples – found several decades before in a coal mine under the Serbian permafrost.

The professors also determined the minerals’ crystal structure, confirming their similarity to MOFs.

Their structure is akin to the the MOFs’ honeycomb-like structure, but not characteristic of the current types of MOFs which are mainly used to capture waste carbon dioxide or in hydrogen fuelled cars.

The scientists are now expanding their research and looking at finding whether other minerals have structures that allow them to be used in drug delivery or hydrogen storage.

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