Upsalite sample.
Disruptive Materials Upsalite sample.

Scientific breakthroughs that are discovered by accident, especially after long and unfruitful searches, become popular lore. Not all findings occur this way, of course, but those that do make for an interesting story.

According to materials science and engineering society ASM International, scientists at Uppsala University in Sweden a few years ago inadvertently left a reaction to continue unabated throughout a weekend. When the researchers arrived at the lab the following week, they found a new material with unprecedented hydrophilic properties (attracted to or dissolves in water.)

This accidental material, named Upsalite after the university, solved a problem scientists had puzzled over since 1820.

Clockwise from top left: Albert Mihranyan, Johan Gómez de la Torre, Sara Frykstrand, and Maria Strømme.
Disruptive Materials Clockwise from top left: Albert Mihranyan, Johan Gómez de la Torre, Sara Frykstrand, and Maria Strømme.

Upsalite is a dry form of magnesium carbonate (MgCO3), the compound of magnesium oxide and carbon dioxide. Since the 19th century, scientists have recognized MgCO3's water-absorbing capabilities, but their efforts to make a super-dry form in the lab have been stymied, leading this new substance to be dubbed an "impossible material." Nanotechnology professor Maria Strømme and her colleagues, however, subjected their experimental media of magnesium oxide and methanol to three times normal atmospheric pressure, rather than just mixing them together. The result is a gel that transforms into a remarkable white powder when heated past methanol's boiling point.

The scientists have since formed a company called Disruptive Materials to commercialize Upsalite, which they envision being applied to a variety of humidity control applications. This material is less expensive to produce than common zeolites used for these applications and is also non-toxic, making it suitable for interior environments.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.