UCLA chemists have created synthetic gene-like crystals that they say could capture heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions.
“We created three-dimensional, synthetic DNA-like crystals,” said UCLA chemistry and biochemistry professor Omar M Yaghi. “We have taken organic and inorganic units and combined them into a synthetic crystal which codes information in a DNA-like manner. It is by no means as sophisticated as DNA, but it is certainly new in chemistry and materials science.”
The discovery could lead to cleaner energy, including technology that could capture carbon dioxide and convert it into fuel.
“DNA is a beautiful molecule that has a way to code for information,” Yaghi said. “How do you code information in a crystal in the same way that DNA does? DJ and I figured out a way to do this. The sequence of organic functionalities that decorates the pores of the crystals is most certainly a unique code.
He said that collaborator Hexiang DJ Deng has shown that one of the new materials he has made has 400 percent better performance in carbon dioxide capture than one without the same code.
“We have created crystals of metal-organic frameworks in which the sequence of multiple functionalities of varying kind and ratios acts as a synthetic ‘gene,'” Yaghi said. “With these multivariate MOFs, we have figured out a way to incorporate controlled complexity, which biology operates on, in a synthetic crystal — taking synthetic crystals to a new level of performance.
“This can be a boon for energy-related and other industrial applications, such as conversion of gases and liquids like carbon dioxide to fuel, or water to hydrogen, among many others,” he said.
Yaghi has been collaborating with his former UCLA chemistry colleague and former CNSI director Sir J Fraser Stoddart on how to take concepts from biology and incorporate them into a synthetic material.
“We hope the materials we are creating will introduce a new class of structures that have controlled complexity,” Yaghi said. “Chemists and materials scientists are now able to ask new questions we have never asked before. Also, new tools for characterizing the sequences and deciphering the codes within the crystals will have to be developed.”