Shooting a movie in the lab is no simple task, especially when the actors are molecules engaged in complex reactions invisible to the naked eye. Professor Emiliano Cortés, an expert in Experimental Physics and Energy Conversion at LMU, compares the challenge to capturing tiny lava flows during a volcanic eruption with just a smartphone camera – an impossible feat. The need for specialized equipment and techniques to visualize and document these molecular interactions is crucial, particularly when the outcome is the creation of promising energy materials known as covalent organic frameworks (COFs).

Despite two decades of intensive research, scientists have struggled to fully understand the synthesis process of COFs. This lack of clarity has led to a trial-and-error approach in developing materials, where molecular components must align perfectly to form the desired porous framework. Christoph Gruber, a member of Cortés’s team, was inspired by this challenge during his early studies and aimed to bridge the gap between physics and chemistry to optimize the synthesis process.

To shed light on the intricate synthesis of COFs, Gruber collaborated with LMU chemist Prof. Dana Medina and used a special microscope for filming the molecular stars in action. This innovative approach allowed the team to observe the formation process of COFs at the nano level and capture these dynamic reactions in real time. The groundbreaking results of their research were recently published in the esteemed journal Nature, accompanied by a revealing video showcasing the intricate synthesis process.

Central to the synthesis of molecular frameworks is the precise control of reactions and self-assembly of building blocks. Prof. Medina stresses the significance of achieving a highly crystalline structure with meticulous order to unlock the desired functionality. However, gaps in understanding, particularly in the early stages of nucleation and growth, have hindered the development of effective synthesis protocols. Visualizing these early stages of reaction became a pivotal focus for the researchers in unraveling the mysteries of COF formation.

Gruber’s unconventional use of iSCAT microscopy brought a fresh perspective to investigating the opening scene of COF formation. This technology, based on interferometric scattering, allowed the researchers to capture the scattering of incident light by even the tiniest of particles. By leveraging this method, the team uncovered the presence of nano-scale droplets that play a crucial role in controlling the kinetics of the initial reaction. These findings challenged existing knowledge and provided new insights into the critical role of nano-droplets in the synthesis of COFs.

Building on their groundbreaking discoveries, the researchers developed an energy-efficient synthesis concept that could revolutionize the production of over 300 different COFs. By optimizing reaction conditions, such as the addition of table salt to reduce temperature, the team achieved room temperature synthesis, enhancing the scalability and sustainability of COF production. These advancements have the potential to impact not only the synthesis of COFs but also other materials and chemical reactions that have yet to be observed in real time.

The LMU researchers’ innovative approach to molecular filmmaking has opened new doors in understanding and optimizing the synthesis of energy materials. By capturing dynamic processes in real time and designing energy-efficient synthesis protocols, the team has paved the way for future advancements in industrial COF production and beyond. The prospect of shooting new films with molecules taking the starring role holds promise for driving innovation and progress in the field of materials science.


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