Picture the entire surface area of a rugby field crammed inside a teaspoon.

That's the incredible amount of complexity packed within a cutting-edge compound that scientists say could make a big difference in efforts to combat climate change.

What are called metal-organic compounds, or MOFs, are the focus of a summit drawing world experts to the country this week.

MOFs are a new class of synthetic materials made up of metal clusters, which effectively act as molecular-scale sponges due to dense networks of tiny pores within them.


"Their internal surface areas are astounding, with the internal surface area of just a teaspoon of framework material equivalent to a rugby pitch," said Massey University chemist Professor Shane Telfer, who is chairing the MOF2018 conference in Auckland this week.

These materials could accommodate hydrogen in next-generation fuel tanks or suck drinking water from desert-like atmospheres.

But it was their potential to trap CO2 which had scientists most excited about them.

"MOFs are already being used for carbon dioxide capture from power plants and we're now looking to use them to sieve out the CO2 that is already present in the atmosphere," said Telfer, who is also a principal investigator with New Zealand's MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology.

"While these materials don't break down the CO2, they prevent it from being released into the atmosphere. Therefore, they can mitigate climate change."

Telfer noted the UN's recent major climate report, which found governments would have to nearly halve their greenhouse gas emissions – and by the end of the next decade – to keep global temperature rise within 1.5C.

"The capture of CO2 from air is implicit in all climate change targets. But we don't yet have a feasible technology to do this."

The need for deep science to combat climate change had never been more urgent, he said.

"Given that climate scientists estimate we have little more than a decade to develop a solution, framework adsorbents are a hot topic in both academia and industry."

And the downstream economic gains were potentially huge.

"If successful, the projected market value of metal-organic framework materials of $750 million by 2025 could be multiplied by a factor of 10," he said.

"We're talking about a market potentially worth many billions."

New Zealand expertise in MOFs was highly sought after for international collaborations.
"Research on porous frameworks carried out in New Zealand is having a telling impact on the international research scene," he said.

"More than a dozen talks will be given by local researchers at the meeting."

Given the potential of these materials to under-pin environmentally-friendly technologies, they were also becoming increasingly prominent in R&D.

At this week's conference, representatives from organisations such as Exxon Mobil, the US Department of Energy and Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) would present their latest findings.

One recent discovery sure to receive attention was the ability of MOFs to suck drinking water out of dry air.

Water harvesters based on a framework material used only ambient sunlight to pull litres of water out of the air each day in arid conditions.

"This inexpensive and recyclable device is ideal for people living in water-starved areas of the world," Telfer said.

"MOF materials are set to be a real game-changer."