Like the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming, many of humanity's coolest and most useful discoveries seem to happen by sheer accident or human error. This particular discovery is one for the history books: scientists have been trying for a long time to create magnesium carbonate for use as a water absorber, and for a while they were convinced that such a compound was not possible to cheaply manufacture.
Swedish scientists from Uppsala proved that hypothesis entirely incorrect through an accident of human error: by leaving their equipment on over the weekend, they accidentally produced dry, powdered Magnesium carbonate with a surface area larger than any other alkali earth metal carbonate known to man.
Known as Upsalite, the discovery of a simple process to produce the compound may result in a revolution for moisture control. The scientists believe Upsalite can be used to reduce the energy needed in climate control during both drug and electronics manufacturing, as well as by ice rinks and warehouses for storage. Potential applications include toxic waste disposal, chemical and oil spill containment, and post-fire sanitation practices.
Maria Stromme, a professor of nanotechnology and one of the authors of the study, said that "Upsalite absorbs more water and low relative humidities than the best materials presently available and can be regenerated with less energy consumption than is used in similar processes today... This, together with other unique properties of the discovered impossible material, is expected to pave the way for new sustainable products in a number of industrial applications."
Variations of the compound have been found to exist in nature, but acquiring one with little or no water molecules was considered next to impossible. After a year of fine-tuning the formula and production process, the scientists had succeeded. The most impressive traits of the new material highlight its lack of water integration and its non-crystalline structure.
Image courtesy Simon Ydhag, Uppsala University