A microscope image of several tiny cubic crystals.

A microscopic look at metal organic framework crystals

Image: CSIRO / Dr Paolo Falcaro and Dr Dario Buso

Written by Rachael Vorwerk

Inside a small sample of powder, there hides a gigantic secret. In just a teaspoon of the stuff you’ll find the entire surface area of a football field. It sounds like something from Back to the Future, but for CSIRO scientists it’s the norm.

The sample contains Metal Organic Frameworks, or MOFs, and they are made up of crystals that grow in random directions. Because of this unpredictability, it is hard to make them useful. That is, until now.

To tame these unruly crystals, scientists grow them on special surfaces, known as substrates. If you find the right substrate, the crystals will grow just the way you want. But it’s not as easy as it sounds, because the substrate must suit the structure and size of the crystal down to the atom.

CSIRO scientists, along with researchers from Japan and Austria, have found and now use such a substrate. That means we can grow individual crystals all lined up into continuous film. Excitingly, this was the one thing holding the scientific community back from making all kinds of new devices. So what does this mean for MOFs in a real-world setting?

For biomedicine it could mean a simpler, faster way of developing vaccines and medicines. Or more opportunities to create implantable medical devices that give real-time information about a patient’s health.

MOFs can also be developed on centimetre-wide film to become a molecular level on/off switch. This means there are new opportunities for sensors, where a piece of clothing could have a coating that detects the build-up of dangerous gases.

The future is bright for MOFs. They may be small, but just like their surface area, the possibilities are huge!

This story was adapted from the CSIRO news blog. Check it out for more Australian science stories!

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