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Scientists announce development of porous material with potential to store air pollution: 'This is an exciting discovery'

"To help solve society's biggest challenges."

"To help solve society's biggest challenges."

Photo Credit: iStock

Air pollution has a long and disastrous rap sheet that includes being a menace to public health and well-being. Fortunately, a team of England-based researchers has a plan to put the filthy culprit in a molecular jail without parole. 

In truth, they have discovered a cage-like porous material that can safely imprison planet-warming gases for a long time.   

"This is an exciting discovery because we need new porous materials to help solve society's biggest challenges such as capturing greenhouse gasses," Heriot-Watt University's Marc Little said in a summary of the science. 

Heriot collaborated with experts from several other universities on the breakthrough, which utilized predictive computer modeling to help find the new material. 

Futurism's the Byte reported that the "supermolecule" is made of oxygen, nitrogen, and fluorine.

The hollow molecules have a high storage capacity, according to the lab summary. Importantly, they can hold heavy planet-warming pollutants like carbon dioxide and the troublesome sulfur hexafluoride. The latter is used in electrical transmission equipment, to manufacture electronics, and during the production of magnesium, per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

Worse yet, it can stay in the atmosphere for 3,200 years

The research is part of a more than $15 million initiative backed by the United Kingdom's government to create collaboration between chemists and artificial intelligence. Computer simulations were used to help the experts determine how the molecules would form the cage structure. 

Scientists around the world are getting creative when it comes to purging the air of pollutants. The U.S. government is investing more than a billion dollars to essentially vacuum the atmosphere clean. A team in Switzerland is working on a process to pass dirty air through a special solution that bubbles like cola when it's exposed to light, separating it from the mix. The pollution can then be collected.

If a reliable process to clean the air can be rolled out in cities around the world, the results can be great for public health because dirty air is linked to cancer, heart disease, and respiratory health risks. 

Pontevedra, Spain, is one success story. Since banning cars from most of the city in 1999, the air pollution tally has dropped by 67%. Switching to electric public transit and vehicles might make more sense for the United State's sprawling cityscapes. Each EV can prevent 10,000 pounds of air pollution when it replaces a gas-guzzler. 

Placing the pollutants in molecular prisons may be another way to deal with the hazardous particles in the near future. The experts in England think their innovation can also be used to remove other toxic compounds from the air, as well as be of use in the medical field. 

"Planting trees is a very effective way to absorb carbon, but it's very slow," Little said in The Byte's story. "So we need a human intervention — like human-made molecules — to capture greenhouse gases efficiently from the environment more quickly."

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