Scientists have developed what they claim is an "impossible" material, by accident.

Researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden apparently left an experiment running over a weekend - by mistake - only to return to their work to find they had solved a century-old problem.

The result of their - well, not quite 'work'… - is "Upsalite", a material that has remarkable abilities to bind water, and could be used in everything from air conditioning units to chemical manufacturing.

The technique involves making powdered and dry magnesium carbonate (MgCO3), by dissolving magnesium oxide and carbon dioxide in methanol. The reaction results in a material that can readily absorb water, and that has important uses across all types of industries.

The problem is that while crystalline forms of MgCO3 can easily synthesised at temperatures exceeding 100C, they aren't able to absorb water. Since 1820 researchers have sought a way to make a pure version of the dry, powdered form at lower temperatures - without success.

Until now. Because by accidentally leaving a mixture of pressurised CO2 to bubble through MgO in methanol over two days, the team at Uppsala returned to find a strange gel which - when heated to 70C - collapsed into a white powder - exactly the powder for which they'd been searching.

The material is easy to reuse, is not toxic and is apparently an extremely impressive desiccant, able to absorb water better than much more expensive materials. If it can be made in large quantities, it could be used in a huge variety of ways. Needless to say, the researchers have already created a new company ('Disruptive Materials') to commercialise the fruits of their accidental labours.

The team's work is published in the journal PLoS ONE.

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