New Crystal Could Let Divers Breathe Underwater

Scuba diving is great fun until your tank starts running out of oxygen. But what if you could just gather the oxygen from the water that’s all around you on a dive? A new material synthesized by researchers in a lab could do just that.

Scientists have created a crystalline material that can pull all the oxygen out of room with just a spoonful. And it can release that oxygen when and where it’s needed. What some have dubbed the Aquaman crystal offers tantalizing promise for those tethered to bulky equipment.

“This could be valuable for lung patients who today must carry heavy oxygen tanks with them,” said professor Christine McKenzie of the University of Southern Denmark, in a statement. “But also divers may one day be able to leave the oxygen tanks at home and instead get oxygen from this material as it “filters” and concentrates oxygen from surrounding air or water. A few grains contain enough oxygen for one breath, and as the material can absorb oxygen from the water around the diver and supply the diver with it, the diver will not need to bring more than these few grains.”

The new material uses the element cobalt, bound in an organic molecule.

“Cobalt gives the new material precisely the molecular and electronic structure that enables it to absorb oxygen from its surroundings,” McKenzie said. “Small amounts of metals are essential for the absorption of oxygen, so actually it is not entirely surprising to see this effect in our new material,” she said.

The material, like a sponge, can absorb oxygen and release it many times over. Once the oxygen is absorbed it can be released with a small amount of heat or by exposing it to low oxygen pressure, like a vacuum. The researchers are also investigating whether the oyxgen release could be triggered by light.

“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,” McKenzie said.


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