Show transcript

[Text appears on screen: Can crystals clean gas, water and air?]

[Music plays and image changes to show Matthew] 

Matthew Hill: My name’s Matthew Hill. I lead one of the teams here that works on porous materials, so these are powders with lots and lots of holes inside of them and these can be used for just about anything.

[Image changes to show Matthew operating a machine with lots of pipes and gauges] 

And what we do is try to take something that’s an interesting scientific discovery and turn it into something that we can use out in the real world.

[Image changes to show Matthew and a colleague working with MOF samples]

So one of the materials we work with is called Metal Organic Frameworks or MOFs, and these things they look like salt or sugar crystals but inside them is a huge number of holes and those holes create a lot of surface inside. So they’re kind of like a sponge and there’s so much surface that there’s actually a football field worth of surface area in about a teaspoon worth of material.

[Image changes to show a shelf of bottled samples]

What we do is use all of that surface to soak up a target molecule. One really exciting use for MOFs is in storing hydrogen. The first hydrogen powered car has just come to Australia, it’s up in Sydney. 

[Image changes to show Matthew filling up a gas cylinder as explained below]

What you do is you fill up, basically a gas cylinder with the hydrogen to run the car and it turns out if you put our MOFs, our special sponges, in the tank you can store as much as twice as much hydrogen in that tank and the exciting thing about a hydrogen car is that the only thing that comes out the exhaust pipe is water. 

[Image changes to show a colleague of Matthew’s holding up a beaker with a clear liquid inside it and then moves to show Matthew talking to her]

So there’s no carbon dioxide emitted at all, so it’s very exciting as a way to stop our carbon omissions. 

[Image changes to show Matthew holding a small child who is reaching for a leaf from a tree]

A lot of people would think science is not necessarily a very creative field, but I think it’s very creative. My aunt is a professional painter and a lot of people say that her and I are very similar people and how did we end up in such different areas, when I say, it’s actually the same, it’s about imagination and creativity and so every day we come to work we’re doing something that no one else in the history of the universe has ever done, and so that is necessarily creative and we have to imagine what the future might be. 

[Image changes to show Matthew writing different equations]

We’re often working on time lines of many years, and if we can’t imagine what the end of our path might be then we tend to go around in a circle. 

[Image changes to show Matthew and a colleague walking together]

Into the future, in the next couple of years, we’re really hopeful you’ll start to see our MOFs out there in the real world.

[Different images of Matthew playing with a child and at work flash by on screen] 

We’re only really limited by what we can imagine using these things for and any application where you can think of separating or storing or releasing some target molecule of interest, and there’s just about every industry where this is relevant, we think these materials might play a part.

[CSIRO logo appears with text: Find out more csiro.au/seven]

Show transcript

Meet Matthew

An entire football field of surfaces inside a teaspoon of powder might sound like science fiction, but this is exactly what Matthew Hill and his team of scientists have created in their lab.

With the potential to completely transform the way we dispose of gases like carbon dioxide, Matthew Hill talks about what their discovery can mean for all of us.

How are you using chemistry to have a large-scale positive impact on the environment?

Forty per cent of the energy used by large industry is used to separate one thing from another. The list is endless: separating bacteria from household water, separating crude oil into useable fuel, or separating minerals into copper and aluminium for our plumbing pipes or household appliances.

These processes are happening every day in every country sending vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

If we can find ways for these processes to use less energy and also capture the carbon dioxide before it goes into the atmosphere, we have the potential to make the kind of difference we’ve dreamed of.

What solution have you and your team created in the lab that has this kind of potential?

The technical term is ‘metal organic frameworks’ or MOFs. The simple explanation is that they are the world’s most porous material.

We create them with different combinations of metals and plastics which form structures that look like a sugar crystal on the nanoscale. Amazingly, inside they’re 80 per cent empty.

The ground-breaking part however is the net result of having a structure where every atom is exposed to empty space: one gram of MOF crystals has a surface area of over 5000 square metres.

What does that mean for the manufacturers and the processing plants who are responsible for so much energy use and the carbon dioxide?

There are so many possible applications of the MOF crystals we’re literally only limited by our imaginations at this point. For example if you put the powder in a tank it can store many more times gas in the same place, which saves on energy used for compression for that tank.

Another way they could use it is that we have designed MOFs which are specific to storing vast amounts of carbon dioxide, which could be used then to absorb all the dangerous gaseous waste from the factories.

What specific application of the MOFs are you and your team excited about at the moment?

We’ve been working with another team in Colorado, USA to try to make a filter for capturing carbon.

We experimented with putting the crystals into layers of plastic polymers, essentially making filtration layers that can be connected to a pollution stream. We thought these layers would only last for a week before they needed to be replaced.

About a month later the layers were still working. It turns out the polymers bonded to the crystals, essentially making a new material that will last for a few years instead of a few weeks, which drives down the cost and makes this a much more viable option.

It’s incredible how much we are still surprised by how things work, even as professional scientists. Whenever it happens to us it reminds me why I love my job. The possibility for discovery, surprise and entirely new ways of helping our human community is endless.

Facts & figures

Manufacturing in Australia

  • Employs 10 per cent of the Australian workforce
  • Exports $90 billion worth a year
  • $4.5 billion spent by the industry on R&D

A taste of the future

  • Metallic 3D printing, from aerospace parts, to surgical implants
  • Smart materials that can fit the surface area of a football field into a single gram
  • Smart chemicals and textiles, from carbon fibre to wearable tech
  • Intelligent industrial environments – where people and autonomous machines can work safely and productively side-by-side

Find out more

Ask Matthew a question or get the very latest news, stories and breakthroughs that will help you, your family and Australia.

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Meet the seven

About CSIRO

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CSIRO is where creativity meets innovation, developing solutions to make a difference to you, our economy and the planet.

We imagine. We collaborate. We innovate.

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