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Oxygen-Thieving Material Could Help us Breathe Underwater

Oct 09, 2014 01:13 PM EDT

Like a scene straight out of "Star Wars," future scuba divers might simply have to slip a thin mask over their face to gain the ability of breathing under water - no oxygen tank required. That's at least one of the dreams fueled by the creation of a new material that can absorb and store massive amounts of oxygen.

Researchers Christine McKenzie and Jonas Sundberg at the University of Southern Denmark claim to have successfully synthesized a material that literally sucks the oxygen out of the air or water that surrounds it.

McKenzie says the new material is kind of like hemoglobin - the transport and storage mechanism in red blood cells designed to deliver oxygen throughout the human body.

However, this material is purely synthetic, and consists of tiny solid crystals. The researchers say that a bucket's worth of the crystals - about 10 liters - is more than enough to suck up all the oxygen in a room. (Scroll to read on...)

"In the lab, we saw how this material took up oxygen from the air around us," McKenzie excitedly said in a recent release.

And while that may sound frightening, the researchers were careful to handle the material in controlled environments, where they wouldn't be finding themselves robbed of all breathable air.

Once the oxygen has been absorbed, you reportedly can keep it stored in the material until you want to release it. According to the study, oxygen can be released by gently heating the material or subjecting it to low oxygen pressures, like in a vacuum. Researchers are now looking into whether light can be used as a release trigger - which may be promising in the study of artificial photosynthesis.

"It is also interesting that the material can absorb and release oxygen many times without losing the ability," she added. "It is like dipping a sponge in water, squeezing the water out of it and repeating the process over and over again."

As things stand, the researchers are investigating how to create a mask that can pull pure oxygen from the air.

"This could be valuable for lung patients who today must carry heavy oxygen tanks with them. But also divers may one day be able to leave the oxygen tanks at home and instead get oxygen from this material as it 'filters' and concentrates oxygen from surrounding air or water," McKenzie explained. "A few grains contain enough oxygen for one breath, and as the material can absorb oxygen from the water around the diver and supply the diver with it, the diver will not need to bring more than these few grains."

Still, such amazing products are a long way away from development, as the researchers are still measuring exactly how much oxygen uptake and storage is possible.

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