Little Mermaid Crystal: Oxygen Absorbing Material for Underwater Breathing

By Eva Rinaldi (Little Mermaid Statue) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Eva Rinaldi (Little Mermaid Statue) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A synthetic crystal seems to be breathing new life into the idea of enabling human breathing underwater. Scientists from the country of origin of the Little Mermaid fairy tale have developed what they refer to as “crystalline materials that can bind and store oxygen in high concentrations.” Scientists at the University of Southern Denmark claim to have figured out the method to store large amounts oxygen into synthetic crystals.

This research was first published on Science Daily last September 30 with the title “New Material Steals Oxygen from Air.” The research team was composed of Professor Christine McKenzie and postdoctoral student Jonas Sundberg of the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Pharmacy of the University of Southern Denmark.

Substitute for Oxygen Tanks

With around 21% oxygen concentration in the atmosphere, humans and other land animals get to breathe normally. However, there are instances when higher concentrations of oxygen are required. People with lung conditions, for instance, will have to obtain oxygen at higher concentrations through oxygen tanks that tend to be heavy and bulky. With the new crystalline material developed by University of Southern Denmark scientists, oxygen collection and storage will no longer have to solely rely on gas tanks.

This new synthetic material is capable of absorbing oxygen in high concentrations. It can even actively absorb oxygen from the environment. The scientists were able to observe the oxygen absorption and emptying process in this crystal material using x-ray diffraction, particularly noting the atom arrangement in the material upon oxygen absorption and after the absorbed oxygen is emptied.

Like Solid Artificial Hemoglobin

This oxygen absorbing material can be likened to a crystalized hemoglobin. It can harvest oxygen from the atmosphere, store it, serve as a transport vessel for it, and enable the use of oxygen whenever and wherever it is needed. According to McKenzie, one essential aspect of this new material is its ability to not react irreversibly with oxygen. It does not transform to a new compound or disintegrate even if it absorbs oxygen in a selective chemisorptive process. As such, it can be used to store oxygen repeatedly. “It is like dipping a sponge in water, squeezing the water out of it and repeating the process over and over again,” McKenzie adds.

By Jynto [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jynto [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Around ten liters or a bucket of this new crystalline material is capable of absorbing oxygen in an average sized room. Once oxygen is stored, it will remain stored until the crystals are subjected to an oxygen removal process. The amount of time it takes for the material to absorb oxygen depends on various environmental factors, which include heat, pressure, and the amount of oxygen available in the atmosphere. The crystals can get fully concentrated with oxygen in minutes, hours, or days. A crystal fully saturated with oxygen can be likened to a pressurized oxygen tank but it has the advantage of being able to hold three times as much oxygen

Oxygen Storage and Removal

Interestingly, the oxygen storage and removal procedures are rather simple. Oxygen absorption takes place by simply leaving the crystals exposed to the atmosphere or by dipping it underwater. Releasing the oxygen, on the other hand, can be made to happen by applying heat and pressure to the material. Subjecting the material to vacuum can also extract the oxygen stored in it. The researchers responsible for this new tech are also exploring the possibility of using light to release the stored oxygen.

What Makes It Absorb Oxygen?

The element cobalt is the key component that makes this crystalline material absorb oxygen. Cobalt is responsible for the material’s molecular and electronic structure that enables oxygen absorption from the environment. This absorption mechanism is similar to what happens in the respiratory systems of all breathing creatures—only with a different element involved. For humans and most other mammals, it is iron that enables oxygen absorption. For arachnids and crustaceans, the element involved is copper. Trace amounts of metallic elements in the bloodstream facilitate the vital oxygen absorption process in breathing and the oxygen absorption exhibited by this new material is a somewhat large-scale demonstration of this process.

By Hi-Res Images of Chemical Elements ( [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Hi-Res Images of Chemical Elements ( [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


There are many possible applications of this new material. One of which is of course the possibility of enabling underwater breathing for animals that don’t have gills. As mentioned, the material has the impressive ability to harvest oxygen dissolved in water. It does not separate oxygen from hydrogen (by chemically breaking down H20) but it collects oxygen dissolved in water. It can also be used for medical purposes, particularly in replacing heavy and bulky oxygen tanks. Moreover, this new material has the potential of becoming useful in the field of artificial photosynthesis.

No specific or technical name has been announced for this new crystalline material yet but it certainly is an interesting invention. It is one of the most exciting new inventions this year along with the US Navy’s technology to convert seawater as fuel. Hopefully, it can be demonstrated in a practical application and mass-produced soon.