Molecular ‘toys’ may help society

USF chemists are cultivating compounds that may protect Americans from harm.

Chemists at USF are developing metal-organic molecules (MOMs) to store hydrogen for transportation and combat bio-terrorism. The molecules are the first of their kind.

MOMs are “molecular tinker toys, basic building blocks,” said Randy Larsen, one of the chemists developing the technology. “Each way that these teams of chemists can arrange the building blocks (is) ultimately going to create new structures that provide new answers to many of our society’s common problems.”

The group leading the research based in USF’s Smart Metal-organic Advanced Research and Technology Transfer (USF-SMMARTT) research center, has received more than $3 million in grants from the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense since the group was formed more than 10 years ago.

Mohamed Eddaoudi, the main investigator on the Department of Energy grant, said he wants to find a way to use hydrogen molecules to power vehicles.

“There is currently no practical use that is cost-feasible for hydrogen storage,” said Mike Zaworotko, director of USF-SMMARTT. “Our goal is to find out how to store hydrogen gas so it can be used as needed as a common source of energy and even as a practical replacement for gasoline.”

MOMs have a higher storage capacity than any natural substance, Zaworotko said.

“MOMs are new materials that have never existed before in nature,” he said. “Because of their properties and chemical makeup, they can do things that nothing else could do before.”

His department is creating a process to bring these synthetic molecules to a stable temperature and pressure for practical use.

USF-SMMARTT was also charged with finding new materials for the decontamination of chemical weapons for both the U.S. military and the Department of Homeland Security.

Their MOMs may help trap chemical agents and safely decontaminate them without the use of biohazard clothing, the chemists said.

Chemical and biological toxins are handled from the protection of specially designed suits that must be thoroughly washed in acid, Larsen said. Eventually, he said, this decontamination process could be greatly reduced or eliminated with the help of MOMs.

The decontamination technology is in the early stages of development and should be ready for commercial use within the next four years, Larsen said.