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Materials discoveries: don't dump the past

Previous trends in zeolite discoveries seem to be repeating. Is that useful?

June 17, 2016

zeolite valley of death

Exceptionally exciting zeolite discoveries around the new millennium have been speculated to enable new types of technologies. But that has not yet happened because of specific technology transfer problems—an effect called "valley of death".

"To be used or not to be used" that's the real question when it comes to materials discoveries.  And, this question is the real motivation for almost every materials scientist.  Be it that she or he works in the lab and is aiming at truly synthesizing a new material in the real world.  Or, be it that she or he is a computational scientist who tries to find the next most promising candidate for a certain application (e.g., gas separation, catalysis) in a large database of hypothetical materials.  Everybody thinks very pragmatic and goal-oriented.

Clearly, this approach can't result in solely successful stories.  There simply has to be a quite high failure rate.  In a conceptual way, this high failure rate has been poured into a picture that many will have heard of already: the valley of death.  Simply speaking, a lot of good ideas won't make it all the way from proof-of-concept to commercial deployment because there is almost always some impeding problem.  One of the biggest challenges is often that a new material is too expensive to be produced in large quantities.  Another, much more fundamental issue is stability.  While many materials work flawlessly under well-defined conditions in the small lab flask, they fail once being exposed to harsher conditions in a large vessel that more realistically resembles the situation in an industrial setting.

Nils Zimmermann and Maciej Haranczyk, both of whom have many years research experience in the field of porous materials, have now taken a fresh data-driven look at the discovery of all zeolites that are to date known.  This class of solids is exceptionally important because those materials are actively used in industry for many decades and in large quantities.  Although more than 200 different zeolite frameworks exist, only a dozen of them have found wide-spread application in catalysis, gas separation, and ion-exchange.  Other application avenues were also targeted, particularly around the new millennium.  But those efforts have mainly resulted in highly distorted structures that weren't thermally stable for sufficient time periods.  The key insight of Zimmermann and Haranczyk's Perspective paper is that recent zeolite discoveries carry similar structural and thermodynamic signatures as the unsuccessful efforts from the past.  The authors argue that new materials discoveries are generally invaluable, but hopes that the new zeolites will truly pan out as many "new technologies" might be too high.

Go here for a video summary of the paper.