This new material can suck all the oxygen out of a room
Image: Beata Jancsik/Shutterstock

Scientists from the University of Southern Denmark have developed a new form of crystalline cobalt salt that acts like a super-effective oxygen sponge. Once it sucks up oxygen, it will hold on to it indefinitely until it's gently heated or exposed to low oxygen pressure, at which point it will quietly release its oxygen hoard back out into the atmosphere. About 10 litres of it would be needed to suck all of the oxygen out of an average-sized room.

"The material can absorb and release oxygen many times without losing the ability. It is like dipping a sponge in water, squeezing the water out of it and repeating the process over and over again,” said lead researcher and nanobioscience professor Christine McKenzie, in a press release. "When the substance is saturated with oxygen, it can be compared to an oxygen tank, containing pure oxygen under pressure. The difference is that this material can hold three times as much oxygen."

The material works by forming a chemical bond with individual oxygen molecules, sort of how oxygen molecules bind with a blood protein called haemoglobin when we breathe, so the oxygen can be distributed around our bodies. Just like haemoglobin, this new material can both sense and contain oxygen, which means it can be used to bind, store and transport it for a range of different applications, from medical equipment to new scuba diving technology.

The key to the material’s success in trapping and holding such a large amount of oxygen molecules is its lattice crystalline structure, says Michael Byrne at Motherboard:

"Each single crystal structure features two nitrate ions bound to a metallic molecular substructure, like a nitrogen house built on a cobalt foundation. It's really a nitrogen mobile home, however, as the introduction of oxygen to the neighbourhood means the nitrogen ions very quickly split town. The oxygen ions then set up shop themselves on the cobalt foundation.”

Once the material is heated up or the pressure in the environment is lowered just enough, the oxygen will move back out into the atmosphere and the nitrogen will move back into the lattice structure of cobalt material.

The team is hoping to use the new material to replace hefty oxygen tanks used by scuba divers and mountain climbers, plus it could have a huge effect on medical treatments, such as for patients with Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which right now requires them to be hooked up to a large oxygen tank 24 hours a day. What the researchers envision is a small, simple oxygen mask made from oxygen-packed cobalt material that constantly replenishes its supply.

The research has been published in the journal Chemical Science.