UO-OSU collaboration leads to breakthrough in understanding aluminum

Researchers in the Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry, a collaboration of the University of Oregon and Oregon State University, have developed the first platform to fully study and understand the aqueous chemistry of aluminum – one of the world's most important metals.

Such an accomplishment, published online this week in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has eluded researchers for more than 100 years, according to a news release issued Oct. 28 by Oregon State University.

The findings should open the door to significant advances in electronics and other fields, ranging from manufacturing to construction, agriculture and drinking water treatment, according to the paper's corresponding author, Douglas Keszler – a professor of chemistry at OSU and director of the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry.

“This integrated platform to study aqueous aluminum is a major scientific advance,” he said. “Research that can be done with the new platform should have important technological implications. Now we can understand aqueous aluminum clusters, see what's there, how the atomic structure is arranged.”

Aluminum, in solution with water, affects the biosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere and anthrosphere, the scientists said in their report. It may be second only to iron in its importance to human civilization. But for a century or more, and despite the multitude of products based on it, there has been no effective way, until now, to explore the enormous variety and complexity of compounds that aluminum forms in water.

"This work is a superb example of the power of collaboration and the impact of the joint UO-OSU Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry," said UO co-author Shannon W. Boettcher of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. "In our lab we developed a method for the precise and clean synthesis of water-soluble metal hydroxide clusters, using a pure metal salt solution as a precursor and electrical current to control the pH through electrolysis and thus drive the cluster assembly."

The researchers at OSU, Boettcher said, combined this tool with advanced spectroscopy and state-of-the-art theory and calculations. "The end result is an improved picture of how aluminum behaves in water, which is important using aluminum hydroxide clusters to make advanced films for electronics, and for understanding geochemical systems."

“Researchers at the University of Oregon are collaborating with scientists at other institutions to redesign the ways we manage and steward our natural and manufactured resources,” said Kimberly Andrews Espy, the UO’s vice president for research and innovation and dean of the graduate school. “This breakthrough by scientists in the Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry is helping to foster a sustainable future for our planet and its people.”

Chong Fang, a professor of chemistry at OSU, called the platform “a powerful new toolset” that eventually may be expanded to do research on other metal atoms.

The fundamental importance of aluminum to life and modern civilization helps explain the importance of the advance, researchers say. It is the most abundant metal in the Earth's crust, but almost never is found in its natural state. The deposition and migration of aluminum as a mineral ore is controlled by its aqueous chemistry. It's found in all drinking water and used worldwide for water treatment. Aqueous aluminum plays significant roles in soil chemistry and plant growth.

Aluminum, which is 100 percent recyclable, is present in cooking, eating utensils, food packaging, construction and the automotive and aircraft industries. Before electrolytic processes were developed in the late 1800s to produce it inexpensively, it was as costly as silver.

- from the UO office of Research, Innovation and Graduate Education