One spoonful of this stuff could turn you into Aquaman

A crystalline substance that can absorb and release oxygen in large quantities could one day lead to tankless underwater breathing a la one water-loving superhero.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
2 min read

Good thing the new oxygen-grabbing crystal was invented by nice Danish scientists, not this guy. David James

It sounds like a substance Lex Luthor could have invented -- a crystal so powerful that just a spoon-size chunk of it could suck all the oxygen out of a room, leaving Lois behind to die a slow, painful death (in Clark's arms, of course).

But the folks who invented the oxygen-absorbing material aren't from a comic book, they're from the University of Southern Denmark, and their goals for the substance aren't nefarious -- they're benevolent.

The main component in the synthesized crystalline material is cobalt, arranged in a unique molecular structure.

"Cobalt gives the new material precisely the molecular and electronic structure that enables it to absorb oxygen from its surroundings," said Professor Christine McKenzie from the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Pharmacy at the University of Southern Denmark. "This mechanism is well known from all breathing creatures on earth: Humans and many other species use iron, while other animals, like crabs and spiders, use copper. 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."

"The substance can absorb and bind oxygen in a concentration 160 times larger than the concentration in the air around us," said a report about the material. The cobalt-based crystal can be made in different versions that gobble up oxygen at different speeds. That, combined with atmospheric conditions, means it can take "seconds, minutes, hours or days for the substance to absorb oxygen from its surroundings."

To get the material to release the oxygen it's holding, either heat or atmospheric pressure -- like that in a vacuum -- is needed, but the researchers are experimenting with other ways to free the oxygen, such as exposure to light.

They don't look like evil scientists, but Professor Christine McKenzie, postdoc Jonas Sundberg and their assistant have created a crystal that gobbles oxygen. University of Southern Denmark

The material is so effective at holding and releasing oxygen, the hope is that it could be used by patients needing supplemental oxygen so that they don't have to carry around heavy tanks. It could also give divers almost superhero-like powers to stay submerged without air tanks a la Aquaman.

"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," said McKenzie. "This could be valuable for lung patients who today must carry heavy oxygen tanks with them. "

"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," McKenzie added. "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."

Now let's just hope the crystal doesn't fall into the hands of a rich bald guy with a really, really bad temper.