We’ve gotten pretty far relying on simple materials such as wood, steel, and nylon to create a modern society, but as our world faces the threat of climate change and permanent harm to our Earth, a group of thinkers called materials scientists are continuing to engineer new materials with properties that might help save us. Here are three examples of how materials scientists are helping solve some of the world’s biggest environmental problems.

A Material That Could Bring about a Better World

While it might sound like the name of the latest hit single by Cardi B, a MOF is an acronym that stands for “metal organic framework.” Aptly termed, MOFs consist of a metal and organic molecules that come together to create a molecular-scale, jungle gym-like framework that’s designed to store gases for various uses.

Mg-MOF-74 is an open metal site MOF whose porous crystalline structure could enable it to serve as a storage vessel for capturing and containing the carbon dioxide emitted from coal-burning power plants. (National Academy of Sciences)

Just as in a jungle gym, the utility of a MOF lies in its negative space, or the pores of its interwoven lattice. Like children perched on a playset, small gas molecules can settle within the pores of a MOF, allowing a gas to be stored for later use. Alternately, the gas molecules can undergo a chemical reaction with the framework itself, causing them to become permanently trapped. By changing the type of metal structures and organic molecules that comprise a MOF, researchers can build MOFs with different chemical properties and pore sizes to target certain gases. 

MOFs have been created to store hydrogen gas to use as a greener fuel source in vehicles, capture toxic ammonia gas that is released at industrial sites, and harvest water vapor that could be re-condensed into drinking water. Their applications are as diverse as their design, giving them unlimited potential to change the world.

A Sponge to Clean Up Oil Spills

A pelican that became covered in oil during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 found its way home 11 years later, flying over 700 miles from where it was relocated in Georgia to its perch in New Orleans. This pelican was one in 582 that were rescued from the oil spill.

Oil spills will continue to happen, but fortunately, scientists from Argonne National Laboratory invented a new kind of sponge that can efficiently soak up oil and leave clean water behind. Called the Oleo sponge, it’s made of your common polyurethane foam, the stuff used in couch cushions, but all of the surfaces within the sponge have a special coating on them that makes them attract oil.

The Argonne scientists used a technique they had invented previously called sequential infiltration synthesis (SIS) to build the coating. SIS enables scientists to grow inorganic materials such as metals within films made of other materials, such as polyurethane.

They used this technique to infuse metal oxide atoms (atoms that contain a metal and oxygen) into the structure of the sponge. Then, they added a molecule that attaches itself to the metal oxide atoms and loves to capture oil molecules. In the end, they had the Oleo sponge, a sponge that looks like your run-of-the-mill foam sponge but can actually suck up oil and get rung out and reused.

The Oleo sponge made its public debut at the ISC’s Chicago Science Festival (we’ll get to do those again someday, fingers crossed!) You won’t believe how cool it is until you see it yourself:

The Whitest Paint in the World

If the Earth absorbed all of the energy it received from the sun, it would be in pretty bad shape. Fortunately, the sun’s energy gets reflected from the surface of the Earth. Interestingly, just like how wearing a white shirt in the sun keeps you cooler, so does covering the Earth in white stuff like ice and snow. In fact, the lighter the color, the more energy it reflects.

As our icecaps have melted and snow has become less common, the Earth doesn’t reflect as much of the sun’s energy as it used to, which is causing our planet to warm even more than it was already.

To break the cycle, materials scientists at Purdue University developed the whitest paint ever made: it reflects over 98% of the light it receives. The paint contains a white powder called barium sulfate, a chemical used to make photopaper and cosmetics white. As paint, it has the capacity to take the sun’s energy and spit it all back out.

An infrared camera shows how a sample of the whitest white paint (the dark purple square in the middle) actually cools the board below ambient temperature, something that not even commercial “heat rejecting” paints do. (Purdue University/Joseph Peoples)

The paint’s reflectivity translates into lower temperatures. After the sun is down, the paint can keep materials 19° F cooler than their ambient surroundings. During the day, at peak sunlight hours, it can keep surface 8° F cooler.

What does this mean for climate change? If we were to paint roofs, roads, and other surfaces using this white paint, we could potentially reduce how much energy the Earth absorbs, which can keep the ground, oceans, and the air above it cooler.

While politicians squabble about who and what is responsible for climate change and while countries and cities around the world suffer the impacts of a warming world, scientists and engineers are hard at word developing technological solutions that could potentially bring is back from the brink.

If you’re wondering what you can do to stop climate change, first and foremost, advocate for science and sensible environmental policy. Learn about organizations and initiatives you can support here. Next, follow Curbed’s guide on 17 things you can do to reduce your energy consumption at home. We share this world, and we can all play a role in protecting it.


  • Ben Marcus

    Ben Marcus is a public relations specialist at CG Life and a co-editor-in-chief of Science Unsealed. He received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Chicago.

    View all posts
  • Sarah Anderson

    Sarah Anderson is a health, environment and science reporter at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and a Ph.D. chemist. Follow her on Twitter @seanderson63.

    View all posts

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On April 8th, 2024, a total solar eclipse will sweep across North America, from Mexico to the Maine-Canadian border. For those who experienced the spectacular solar eclipse of 2017, this one will be similar, crossing the United States from west to east and passing through or near several major metropolitan areas. And while its path is quite different this time, Carbondale, Illinois, a reasonable destination for Chicago-area residents, will once again be on the line of totality.    

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