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World’s Most Efficient “Mop”

Although it was discovered more than one hundred years ago, the world’s most efficient water absorber – magnesium carbonate (MgCO3) – was proclaimed to be the “impossible material” because the process used to produce it was expensive and unfeasible. But recently, human error made the impossible possible as the secret to synthesizing the elusive compound was uncovered by accident.

While most “disordered carbonates” can be produced inexpensively by bubbling carbon dioxide through an alcohol mixture, the same method doesn’t work for magnesium carbonate. For years, researchers had been altering synthesis parameters in the hope of finding a solution until one day when the material was mistakenly left in the reaction chamber at higher than normal atmospheric pressures over the weekend. It was then that the researchers noted the formation of a rigid gel. It took another year to determine that heating the gel to 70 degrees Centigrade (158 degrees Fahrenheit) would cause it to solidify and collapse into a white, coarse powder.

Upsalite (as the substance is now known) owes its extraordinary “dryness” to millions of miniscule pores, each one-millionth the diameter of a human hair. This has the effect of increasing its relative surface area such that a single gram of the powdered form has a total exposed surface of 800 square meters. Potential applications for use of the unique material range from removing moisture in industrial environments to cleaning up hazardous material spills.

For information: Maria Stromme, Uppsala University, Department of Engineering Sciences, Nanotechnology and Functional Materials, Box 534, 751-21 Uppsala, Sweden; phone: +46 (0)18-471-723; email:; Web site:     

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