Soaking up gases with molecular sponges

Absorbing carbon emissions from power stations and creating a new generation of hydrogen fuel tanks in future vehicles are just some of the potential applications of Dr Deanna D’Alessandro’s discoveries in basic chemistry.

She has created new, incredibly absorbent chemicals that can capture, store and release large volumes of gas.

It’s all to do with surface area, says Deanna, a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Chemistry at The University of Sydney.

She has constructed crystals that are full of minute holes.

One teaspoon of the most effective of these compounds has the surface area of a rugby field.

What’s more, the size and shape of the pores can be customised and changed using light. So she believes she can generate molecular sponges that will mop up carbon dioxide, hydrogen, or in theory almost any gas—and then release it on cue.

In 2010, her achievements won her a $20,000 L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellowship which provided equipment, travel support and a student to assist her.

Deanna’s compounds have similar molecular structures to those in seashells and the microscopic marine plants called diatoms.

These naturally-occurring materials are commonly used in toothpaste, laundry detergents, kitty litter and other industrial applications.

But her high tech equivalents are crystals known as metal-organic frameworks—clusters of charged metal atoms linked by carbon-based groups.

While she didn’t invent these frameworks, Deanna has developed new kinds of them which are more robust and possess the molecular pores that can be shaped by light.

Photo: Deanna D’Alessandro, The University of Sydney. Credit: L’Oréal Australia/SDP media

School of Chemistry, The University of Sydney, Deanna D’Alessandro, Tel: +61 2 9351 7392,,