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TANG PRIZE/Pioneering chemist contributes to sustainability with 'Lego building'

06/18/2024 06:40 PM
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Omar M. Yaghi poses for a photo during a recent interview with CNA at University of California, Berkeley. CNA photo June 18, 2024
Omar M. Yaghi poses for a photo during a recent interview with CNA at University of California, Berkeley. CNA photo June 18, 2024

Taipei, June 18 (CNA) Being a "molecular architect," one can dictate what structures they want to make, "like building Lego," and most importantly, use them for the end of sustainability applications, said 2024 Tang Prize in Sustainable Development awardee Omar M. Yaghi.

Yaghi was honored for his pioneering work on metal-organic and other ultra-porous frameworks used in carbon capture, hydrogen and methane storage and water harvesting, according to a Tang Prize Foundation announcement Tuesday.

The Tang Prize is a biennial award established in 2012 by Taiwanese entrepreneur Samuel Yin (尹衍樑), chairman of the Ruentex Group, to honor people who have made prominent contributions in four categories -- sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, sinology, and rule of law.

In an interview with CNA, Yaghi described winning the Tang Prize as both a personal honor and an important recognition of the field he and many have been building for nearly 30 years.

Yaghi, 59, is the James and Neeltje Tretter Chair Professor of Chemistry, Department of Chemistry, University of California, Berkeley, a senior faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the founding director of the Berkeley Global Science Institute.

In the 1990s he pioneered the development of a new field of chemistry called reticular chemistry, a new way to make materials by stitching organic and inorganic units into robust, porous crystalline metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) and covalent organic frameworks (COFs) through strong bonds.

Later research found that MOFs and COFs can trap, concentrate, and manipulate hydrogen, methane, carbon dioxide, and water from the air, a discovery that has opened up new solutions to current challenges to "our planet," namely, clean air, clean energy, and clean water, according to the foundation.

Yaghi said it had been a long-standing challenge in chemistry to link molecular building units by strong bonds, as one would make "ill-defined materials" every time they built such structures through strong bonds.

Omar M. Yaghi in a lab at University of California, Berkeley. CNA photo June 18, 2024
Omar M. Yaghi in a lab at University of California, Berkeley. CNA photo June 18, 2024

He and his team succeeded in making the very first crystalline MOFs back in the mid-1990s, and then in 1999 they discovered an MOF with ultra-high porosity of almost 3,000 meters squared per gram, he said.

"[This] means for each gram of material, you have a surface area or a footage of the material that's equivalent of a football field, [which] was a very important discovery that started the field," Yaghi noted.

The possibility to build structures, like Legos, into many different forms had been many people's dreams, "because then the potential would be that we would use organic building units and inorganic building units to make new materials, and in our case, MOFs," he explained.

"What motivated me was the intellectual question of building structures in a rational design way, almost like a molecular architect," he said.

"Being a molecular architect [means] one can dictate what structures you want to make and for what applications," the scientist continued.

Related news: Omar M. Yaghi wins 2024 Tang Prize in Sustainable Development

"The invention of new materials has always been how civilizations have advanced. In fact, the more control over materials we have, the more we can control materials on a finer and finer level," and the more industries can be created, Yaghi said.

MOFs are open structures and have an extremely high surface area, which makes them extremely useful for hydrogen storage, for the capture of CO2 from the air, and for water harvesting from air, he added.

Yaghi discovered that MOFs seek and trap water from low-humidity air and concentrate it within their pores. In 2016, he and his team reported the first droplets of water coming out of a device using MOFs, with no energy input other than the ambient sunlight.

Remarkably, his MOF water harvesters, first tested in the Arizona desert, have been found to maintain their optimal performance after testing for over 30,000 cycles. The water harvested has been shown to be ultra-pure, exceeding U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency standards for drinking water.

In terms of sustainability, Yaghi said while the ability to control matter on the atomic molecular level is needed, "we also need to be responsible and make materials or develop technologies with a long view in mind" by thinking more about the life cycle of the material and taking into account possible adverse effects that such innovation might cause.

CNA photo June 18, 2024
CNA photo June 18, 2024

Yaghi's contributions are unique in that he has succeeded in taking ground-breaking basic science to unprecedented levels of practical applications for sustainability, according to the foundation.

The applications of his technologies for clean energy, clean air, and ultra-pure water are now being pursued by hundreds of laboratories in academia and industry worldwide.

Commercialization of these technologies is already underway with products being made by new start-up companies and by some major chemical, materials, and automobile companies, according to the Tang Prize Foundation.

Over 100,000 MOFs and COFs have been made to date as a result of his reticular chemistry. The MOFs and COFs market made possible by Yaghi's work was estimated by MarketWatch in 2021 to be US$271 million and US$351 million in 2022, the foundation said.

Yaghi holds 60 U.S. patents and has been honored with prestigious awards from 17 different countries.

Born in Amman, Jordan to a refugee family, Yaghi said he was fortunate to have a father and mother dedicated to their children's education, and who taught him "work ethic and the power of hard work, dedication and commitment to one's work."

This is also reflected in his advice for young students. "As researchers fail most of the time or they do not get the results that they're looking for, we mentor students through that and so that they can look at those failures as increments of success."

"I think that discoveries are made by those who have prepared mind, those who labor, research, and have a keen sense of observation, and above all, do the experiment," he said.

"That's how you make a discovery," he added.

(By Chang Hsin-yu and Alison Hsiao)

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