The crystals that can clean the planet

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Matthew Hill’s work with the ultra-porous crystals known as metal-organic frameworks has earned him an Australian Prime Minister’s science prize. James Mitchell Crow reports.

Some kids never outgrow their love of construction toys. CSIRO chemist Matthew Hill turned his love of blocks into a brilliant career – once he scaled down from Lego bricks to atoms. The materials he builds in the lab have won him the 2014 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year, one of the five Prime Minister’s science prizes. The crystals might help solve some of the biggest problems on Earth, by soaking up CO2 from power plant emissions, acting as gas tanks for future fuels, or filtering contaminants from water supplies.

Hill has spent the last decade developing crystals known as metal-organic frameworks (MOFs). They look like ordinary white salt crystals. But X-rays reveal their secret. The MOF crystal is mostly empty space, 10 times more porous than anything else on the planet.

Chemists debate who made the first MOF. Some claim they date back to the 1950s. The argument was academic until the late 1990s when it first dawned on some researchers how useful these ultra-porous materials could be. They are the sponges of the atomic world – name your gas and they should be able to soak it up.

When Hill started out a decade ago, MOFs were in their infancy. …