Chemistry and Materials Science Breakthroughs in 2013


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Water repellent surface. Photo by Pippalou.

Researchers created a very water-repellent surface. Photo by Pippalou.

2013 brought many significant discoveries in the fields of chemistry and materials science. Here are some of the most important breakthroughs in this area of science.

Periodic Table Update: Discovery of a New Element

Scientists from Lund University (Sweden) reported the existence of a new element, with atomic number 115. Researchers created this element synthetically in the laboratory by appropriate nuclear reactions. A Joint Working Group of members of the International of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and Physics (IUPAP) will decide its atomic symbol and official name.

According to M.Sc. Ulrika Forsberg, one of the researchers involved in the study:

“These findings are the results of prolonged research work over the years, performed by different research groups. A new element has been officially recognized and this will lead to a change in the periodic table.”

Super Hydrophobic Surface

Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, Boston, US), led by professor Kripa Varanasi, developed the most water repellent surface ever.

Their material showed the shortest contact time when a drop of water hit it. As it can be seen in the video below, a droplet with a radius of 1.33 mm and with a velocity of 1.2 m/s bounces off the surface in just 7.8 ms.

This value is 37 % shorter than the known theoretical limit of contact time” professor Varanasi explained.

The reason for this superhydrophobic property is that, when in contact with the surface, the water drop does not keep the regular “pancake” shape, then bouncing back all in one piece. The drop, on the contrary, gets “broken” into many smaller droplets, of irregular dimensions. This makes the contact time very short.

The surface morphology of the material, which is made of a combination of macroscopic ridges and micro-nanoscopic structures, causes this behavior.

Professor Varanasi and coworkers showed this effect with silicon, aluminum and copper.

Upsalite has a very high surface area. Photo by Disruptive Materials.

Upsalite has a very high surface area. Photo by Disruptive Materials.

Carbonate-based Material with Very High Surface Area

Researchers of Uppsala University (Sweden) prepared a magnesium carbonate-based material (MgCO3) using a very simple process – a reaction between magnesium oxide (MgO) and carbon dioxide (CO2) in a methanol solution, at temperature below 100 oC. It was the first time that scientists prepared anhydrous MgCO3 using this synthetic route, as previous literature reported that this reaction did not work.

This material, called Upsalite, has remarkable properties; its surface area, for instance, is the highest ever measured for a metal carbonate (800 m2/g). This surface area is due to its structure, with pores as small as 6 nm.

Because of this, Upsalite has excellent moisture adsorption properties; in fact, at low relative humidity, it has an adsorption capacity 50 % higher than the commercial zeolite-Y. This makes Upsalite potentially useful for technological applications, such as moisture control for electronic and drug formulation, recovery of toxic waste or spillage, etc.

Graphene 2-D structure. Photo by Clara Piccirillo.

Graphene 2-D structure. Photo by Clara Piccirillo.

Latest Graphene Developments and Applications

Graphene, the 2-D carbon-based material, is sometimes referred to as “the wonder material,” due to its numerous remarkable properties. Many research groups all over the world investigate its possible applications, especially in combination with other materials.

Here are some of the developments achieved in 2013.

  • Researchers of Zejiang University (China) developed a graphene-based aerogel which has the lowest density ever recorded for a solid material – 0.16 mg/cm3. In addition to the low density, the gel is very flexible and it can adsorb up to 900 times its weight of oil. This makes it suitable for environmental remediation.
  • Graphene was used to make a supercapacitor, which can work in a wide temperature interval (between -50 and +80 oC). The device has a capacitance of 300 mF at 25 oC and a maximum voltage of 3.7 V. Potentially this supercapacitor can be used to store energy for electronic equipment, such as computers and/or vehicles. This work was performed by researchers of the Université Paul Sabatier (Toulouse, France).
  • Scientists from the University of Texas (Austin, US) developed a new method to grow larger crystals of graphene on a copper substrate. In their work they used the Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD) technique; the control of the oxygen present on the copper surface enabled them to deposit crystals with dimensions of centimeters. This is an important step for the synthesis of graphene at a larger scale, for possible industry application.
  • Modified graphene showing magnetic properties was reported for the first time by researchers of University of California (Berkeley, US). This result was obtained by functionalizing graphene with an appropriate organic group (nitrophenyl).

2013 Science Breakthroughs

There were many materials science advances in 2012, but in science, particularly in the field of chemistry, 2013 was another banner year. From a new element in the periodic table to tremendous advances in the use of graphene, chemists and materials scientists were making breakthroughs all year long.


Rudolph, D. et al. Spectroscopy of Element 115 Decay Chains. (2013). Physical Review Letters. Accessed January 6, 2014.

Bird J.C. et al. Reducing the contact time of a bouncing drop. (2013). Nature. Accessed January 6, 2014.

Forsgren, J. et al. A Template Free, Ultra-Adsorbing, High Surface Area Carbonate Nanostructure. (2013). Plos One. Accessed January 6, 2014.

Sun, H. et al. Multifunctional, Ultra-Flyweight, Synergistically Assembled Carbon Aerogels.  (2013). Advanced Materials. Accessed January 6, 2014.

Tsai, W.Y. et al. Outstanding Performance of Activated Graphene Based Supercapacitors in Ionic Liquid Electrolyte from -50 to 80 oC. (2013). Nano Energy. Accessed January 6, 2014.

Hao, Y. et al. The Role of Surface Oxygen in the Growth of Large Single-crystal Graphene on Copper.  (2013). Science. Accessed January 6, 2014.

Hong, J. et al. Chemically Engineered Graphene-based 2D Organic Molecular Magnet. (2013). ACS Nano. Accessed January 6, 2014.

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