Understanding an efficient light harvesting material

When we fill porous materials with dye molecules of the right size, we obtain useful compounds for solar energy technology. These compounds can transfer solar energy efficiently because pores and channels fit to the dyes “like a glove”. In this way, molecules are forced to stay in line, and energy can easily pass from a molecule to the next one in the line. If we knew in detail the structure of the dye arrays, we’d have better chances to improve these compounds.

Unfortunately, the precise positioning of the molecules inside the pores is very hard to determine.  Recently, we solved this problem for a class of particularly efficient dyes filling the channels of zeolite L.  Key to success was diversity within the team, which favored the combination of multiple techniques involving both experiments and calculations.

The useful properties of these materials arise from the arrangement of dye molecules inside the porous host, which depends on the interactions among molecules and with the porous host. After this work, now it seems we understand a little better these complex materials. Indeed, our dyes are linear, symmetric and fit to the zeolite channels. Yet they adopt a slightly asymmetric positioning to maximize the interactions with the zeolite cations, which stabilize the compound.

Perylene-bisimide dye (cyan) in zeolite L (gray). The purple spheres represent the zeolite potassium cations

This work also suggests some possible ideas to improve these compounds by modifying either the porous container (the “host”) or the dye molecule (the “guest”). In my view, this is also a good example of how computational modeling may help to rationalize experimental results in apparent contrast with each other, yielding a consistent picture of a useful and intriguing material.


Gigli et al. (2018)  “Structure and Host–Guest Interactions of Perylene–Diimide Dyes in Zeolite L Nanochannels”  J. Phys. Chem. C 122, 6, 3401-3418

RSC Twitter conference 2018

The Twitter Poster Conference is an annual event organized by the Royal Society of Chemistry, which consists of sharing chemical research using tweets. You may take part either by tweeting an image of your poster or by commenting on other poster (doing both is better, in my view). As in a traditional conference, you see great research, are asked interesting questions, meet old friends, and come in contact with new colleagues or potential collaborators. Only, at the twitter conference this happens 24 hours non-stop  on global scale; so, it’s a good idea to get there prepared!

I enjoyed so much my 2017 participation that I couldn’t miss the 2018 edition.  Of course, it was awesome, and I am grateful to the organizers, the sessions’ chairs, and all participants, particularly those with whom I interacted.  Indeed, I have learnt new stuff, seen exciting science, been inspired, without moving from my office and paying any conference fees. Really cannot ask for more. Many thanks to all of you!

Tweeting posters is not trivial. For optimal readability,  you should keep into account, for example,  that mobile phones have small screens, and that Twitter images are resized and cropped down – so, it would be better to prepare the poster in landscape format. These and other useful tips can be found in this excellent post. I came across it when the event was over, but it would surely be useful in the future.

Below you can find my poster, illustrating the fruitful collaboration between calculations and diffraction experiments at high-pressure conditions.

Besides water and ethanol in ferrierite (discussed in this post), the poster shows our new work on a host-guest compound of zeolite L and fluorenone dye under high pressure. These host-guest materials have excellent optical properties, useful for many applications, from solar cells to sensing in medical technology. Knowing their structure and working principles could help improve their performances – that’s why we try so hard to understand dye-zeolite composites at molecular level.

Basically fluorenone inside the channels of zeolite L forms a molecular ladder, which is very stable at room conditions because the carbonyl groups of the dye interact very strongly with the potassium cations of the zeolite.

Is this peculiar structure also stable under GPa pressures?

According to experiments and simulations, the answer is apparently yes!  Our composite  maintains its structure, and the interactions between the dye and the zeolite cations become stronger. The exceptional resilience of this material to compression highlights its outstanding mechanical properties. These are important to extend the application of dye-zeolite composites beyond room-pressure conditions.

More about this research can be found in this recently published paper (“Unravelling the High-Pressure Behaviour of Dye-Zeolite L Hybrid Materials”) – which is open access. The high-resolution poster and the green open access version of the ferrierite paper can be downloaded at figshare.



RSC Twitter poster session 2017

On March 20th, i took part to the RSC Twitter Poster Conference 2017, an online event organized by The Royal Society of Chemistry to favour new contacts and exchanges among researchers in chemical sciences. The event was a big success.

To those of you that might wonder what a twitter poster session is, here’s an excerpt from The Analytical Scientist:

How do Twitter poster sessions work?
Participants tweet an image of their poster with the title and hashtags #RSCPoster and the area (e.g. #RSCAnal) at any point throughout a 24-hour period. This means that people anywhere in the world can join in.  

It’s a fully global event open to every chemist on twitter. No conference fees: by following the hashtag #RSCPoster, anyone could attend and submit their poster.

What a nice surprise when nice images of posters started appearing in the feed on that Monday morning. Awesome idea – i thought,  tweeting my contribution a few seconds later.

To be honest, the poster was not prepared for the occasion – I simply recycled a poster presented at a traditional conference, and I shared it just to see what would happen.  It was great. Not only people were tweeting their images, they were also commenting on the posters, just like in a standard conference but within 140 characters.  The participants were discussing technical aspects of the results or methodology, asking more general questions on the featured research, and all of this worked wonderfully.   It was exciting: every few seconds, a new contribution was added to the feed, containing interesting and well presented science.

As in normal conferences, this wasn’t just a chance to present your own project, but also a fantastic opportunity to look at what the researchers out there were doing, and to learn a lot from it. New ideas were inspired by work in apparently unrelated research areas. Beside science, it was also a very useful experience in communicating research to a heterogeneous audience using few, carefully selected words.  Yet another demonstration of how twitter can be useful to scientists!

I regret that i wasn’t able to look at all the posters during the session – they were definitely too many.  Fortunately, even if the conference is over, the posters are still hanging on the virtual wall at the RSC Tumblir site, so that in the case you missed the event, you might still catch up with the interesting science. I’d strongly recommend to give a look at them: they’re awesome!

Some lucky participants got the coolest thing you could ever imagine: a cartoon abstact of their poster – like this one:


So I’m very grateful to @MCeeP (ErrantScience.com) for making my day with this, and for the incredible tour-de-force of drawing the cartoons! I much enjoyed to see all of them: not only they were funny, but also further engaged the participants, stimulating curiosity and new conversations. These brilliant poster abstracts really made the conference unique.

This is crazy but …what if cartoon abstracts were introduced in traditional conferences as well?  To get a feeling, just check out the complete gallery of these cool cartoons of posters at ErrantScience.


Finally, many thanks to the RSC, the organizers, and the participants for such a great experience. A superb way to promote chemical research. I’m glad to have been some little part of it, and looking forward for the next year event.

Just for the records, here’s my humble contribution to #RSCposter.  For those interested, what featured in the poster is briefly explained here (left side) and blogged here (right side).

High pressure and small spaces create order from disorder

Our work on ethanol and water in ferrierite, published here and blogged in my previous post,  has been recently covered by MRS Bulletin in an excellent news article – “High pressure and small spaces create order from disorder”  by science writer Tim Palucka. Some time ago, I had a very pleasant communication with Tim about the main ideas and results of the paper. That interview also helped me a lot to understand how science communication is done professionally. The piece by Tim really does a great job in explaining the scientific background, the main findings and the perspectives of our research – and, of course, all of us are so happy about it!

MRS Bulletin contains other interesting news articles, which are very useful to get a first impression about what’s going on in the many diverse areas of materials science –  we’re very proud to be featured there! Big thanks, therefore, to MRS Bulletin and Dr. Palucka for the awesome coverage, and to Prof. Gion Calzaferri for commenting on our work as an external expert. A pdf version of the news article is freely available at MRS Bulletin (Volume 42, Issue 3, pp. 176-177, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1557/mrs.2017.38 ), while the illustration showing the arrangement of water and ethanol in the zeolite is just here below:

Many thanks also to my institution, @Uni_ Insubria, for issuing a piece on our research and sharing it on the social media. The Uni_Insubria release – including also an English translation, can be found at this Facebook link  (Italian version also at: Chemistry & Earth Science Department of Uni Modena-Reggio Emilia – that we thank as well).

Under pressure, from chaos to order.

What happens to a liquid mixture when it is driven by pressure into an initially empty container? What if the container has an ordered pattern of molecular-sized pores? To answer this question, we prepared a sort of good vodka drink – three parts water, and one ethanol – and we injected it into the pores of an hydrophobic container – the zeolite ferrierite. As hydrophobic materials  don’t like water and don’t care about drinks, we had to be very drastic:  we used a diamond anvil cell. In this apparatus, the sample – the empty container and the mixture, in our case –  is compressed between the tips of two opposing diamonds and experiences huge pressures – about 10.000 times the normal atmospheric pressure.  At these conditions,  matter is subjected to unimaginable forces, comparable to internal atomic forces: this means that strange, unexpected phenomena could show up. Now, let’s combine the power of high-pressures  with the ordering effect of the pore matrix and see what happens to our mixture.

Just to start with, the water-ethanol mixture – the pressure-transmitting medium – enters the pores of the matrix.  But how do the molecules occupy the pores? You don’t need to be a chemist to know how it is difficult to separate alcohol from water. This is a critical issue also for sustainable processes – such as the production of biofuels.

Thanks to high pressure and to the porous matrix – and with the help of computational modeling – here we obtained the separation of ethanol from water, and the formation of a beautiful pattern of clusters.  The clusters – rows of ethanol dimers, and square water tetramers – occupy different regions of the host matrix and alternate like tiles forming a nice molecular mosaic – a “two-dimensional architecture” – inside the porous host.  What’s really exciting about it is that the ordered pattern, created by high pressure, also remained stable by bringing the material back to atmospheric pressure.  This means that using high pressures and porous hosts, we can create new materials, which are stable at normal conditions, and could potentially be exploited in applications.

The metamorphosis of the initial water-ethanol solution into a beautiful two-dimensional pattern remains somewhat mysterious. More in general, how organization arises from chaos is still one big question in science.  However, our molecular dynamics simulations show that water molecules, already inside the pores, can spontaneously self-organize in square tetramers:

The final result, is the formation of the stable two-dimensional architecture of water and ethanol clusters. As the movie shows, the molecules move, but the clusters do not break apart. – even upon returning to room pressure.


Disclosing the way in which molecules and nanoparticles assemble at high pressure conditions, under the guidance of a suitable matrix would be a great and intriguing challenge for future studies. Another one would be the actual production of technologically relevant materials through the combined use of pressures and suitable porous matrices.  These goals could be achieved only through a close collaboration between experiment and theory – a synergy which has been at the very origin of the present work.

In a wider perspective, understanding the behavior of matter at high pressures is  of central relevance in science, as explained in this excellent introductory feature article.  Pressure effects are ubiquitous, in chemistry, physics, earth and planetary sciences, as well as in many industrial processes and technological applications.  High-pressure conditions are also hypothesized to explain the origin of complex chemistry and life. The study of this exotic regime, so different from our everyday-life, may reveal plenty of phenomena which would be hard to imagine based on our experience.

Reference: Irreversible Conversion of a Water–Ethanol Solution into an Organized Two-Dimensional Network of Alternating Supramolecular Units in a Hydrophobic Zeolite under Pressure, by Rossella Arletti, Ettore Fois, Lara Gigli,  Giovanna Vezzalini, Simona Quartieri, and myself. Angewandte Chemie 2017 – DOI:  http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/anie.201610949

Special thanks to Andrea Stangoni (@andrea_stangoni), author of the cover artwork.  His image summarizes the ideas of our work much more beautifully than my blog post!


And, of course, big thanks to Angewandte too! 🙂

Here are the official versions of the cover:


Hope you enjoyed the movies, both (equilibration and final) available at figshare.

Update:  the green open access (accepted article) version of this paper is now freely downloadable from the figshare repository.

How large molecules cross narrow pore entrances

How can a snake swallow a mouse bigger than its mouth?

Weird as it seems, questions like this emerge very often at the molecular scale. For example, we can fill porous materials with molecules larger than the diameter of the pores: in this way, we may obtain devices for energy and health applications. What makes this useful process possible? Flexibility is the key: both the porous host (the “snake”) and the molecule (the “mouse”) must deform for the process to occur. But here, contrary to the mouse-snake case, cooperation between the two partners is needed.

We captured the passage of a bulky molecule through the very narrow opening of one of these pores. We did this by computer simulations, because it is very hard to get such information experimentally. To get an idea of what we found, you don’t even need to read the paper – and i’m not kidding. Just look at the movie below!

What we’ve seen first, is that the pore is slightly larger at its entrance. This surely helps the molecule to go in.

Second: contrary to the mouse, which would escape the snake as fast as it could, the molecule is indeed “magically” drawn to the pore entrance – by electrostatic forces.

“So what?” – you may say.

Keep in mind that the molecule is still larger than the pore opening. No kind of “fatal attraction” could do the trick, in a world of rigid bodies.

We’ve found that the molecule can pass through the opening and slip inside the pore only because it’s flexible, and its motion is “in tune” with the vibrations of the porous matrix. All this factors cope to make the entrance process more favorable than the exit process – that’s why the molecule gets finally swallowed by the pore, and remains trapped inside the material.

For me, it was very nice to see how bulky molecules manage to pass through narrow openings and travel inside a porous material. But finding out the reason why they stay inside was, probably, even more exciting:  because it explains how materials of this kind can form and remain stable. Which is exactly one of the things you may need, in the quest of  easier and smarter ways to produce better materials.

 As we have to give credit where credit is due, i must confess that i borrowed the mouse-and-snake idea used in this post. But you’ll never know from whom. Me neither: (s)he was an anonymous referee of the paper. I am very grateful to this person: i can hardly imagine a nicest way to sketch our work.
Many thanks, of course, also to ChemComm for the cover!

How carbon monoxide binds to TiO2

What do a spacecraft, a breathalyzer, and carbon monoxide have in common? Nothing at all – you’d think. And you’d be wrong!  All three give you information on things that you cannot directly see, touch or measure. A spacecraft can capture some signal and send you beautiful images of a planet. With the help of a breath tester, a policeman may deduce the alcohol content in your blood. And using carbon monoxide, researchers may find highly reactive centers on materials surfaces.  Let’s focus on the latter and see how it works!

Left image: the Soyuz spacecraft (source: Wikimedia commons). Center image: a breathalyzer (source: photograpy by Elza Fiúza/ABr, distributed under a CC-BY 3.0 license). Right image: carbon monoxide (blue=carbon; red=oxygen).

When a molecule comes in contact with surface atoms, its properties change. By measuring these changes, you get information on the surface sites interacting with the molecule.  Molecular vibrations – that you can measure by infrared spectra – provide very useful information: the vibration of carbon monoxide is very sensitive to the type of surface sites.  That’s why this molecule is used to identify active centers on catalytic materials, such as titanium dioxide.

How does carbon monoxide (CO) bind to surface atoms?  If you’re a chemistry student, you (should) know very well how CO interacts with molecules and ions. You’ve learned that this molecule can work both as a donor and as an acceptor of electron density.  Well, what’s nice, is that this happens also on surfaces, and  you can see it experimentally.

Let’s see this step-by-step. Carbon monoxide is a peculiar molecule. When it acts as a donor, charge flows to its bonding partner, which could be, for example, a metal cation.  This process strengthens the C−O bond and increases its vibration frequency.  This means that, in the infrared spectrum of the sample, you’ll find the CO band at higher frequencies – “blue-shifted” – with respect to the free, unperturbed molecule.  But carbon monoxide can also accept electron density from its bonding partner. If this occurs, the C-O bond becomes weaker: its stretching frequency decreases, and you’ll see a “red-shifted” CO band in your spectrum.

Carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless, and highly toxic – a true and unmerciful silent killer. It binds to iron(II) in hemoglobin, and this prevents the delivery of oxygen to the human tissues. This is a – very unfortunate – case where carbon monoxide acts at the same time as a donor and as acceptor. The bond is synergic: CO donates to the metal,  the metal back-donates to CO, and these two mechanisms reinforce each other:– that’s why it kills.  This synergy  occurs in many molecular complexes of transition metals and ions – often with less dangerous consequences. It’s less known on metal oxide surfaces, but it may happen as well. Is this the case of TiO2?

Not apparently, because carbon monoxide can only be a donor towards Ti cations –  they are Lewis acids, and cannot give back electron density.  The lower is their coordination number, the stronger is their acid power.  For example, a Ti cation coordinated by 4 oxygens  – Ti(4) – should be a stronger acid than one bound to 5 oxygens  -Ti(5).

Researchers use carbon monoxide to explore the activity of surface cations and deduce their environment, in particular the number of oxygen neighbors. This information connects the reactivity of a catalytic center to its molecular structure,  and may help them to improve the catalyst.  Practically speaking, they send carbon monoxide on a TiO2 sample and measure the infrared spectrum.  The rule is simple: the higher the frequency of the CO band, the more reactive are the Ti sites on the sample, and the lower their coordination number.

The image shows a 5-coordinated  Ti center (left) and a 4-coordinated  Ti site (right) on  anatase-TiO2 surfaces

So if you had a TiO2 sample with Ti(5) sites, and a second one with Ti(4), what would you get from the experiment?  “The second sample should show a more blue-shifted CO band, because Ti(4) is a stronger Lewis acid”.  If you answered this, you’d be wrong… because we actually did the experiment, checked with calculations, and found the contrary.  We found that CO on Ti(4) gives a less blue-shifted band – even if Ti(4) is a stronger Lewis acid.  Just as if a breathalizer estimated a lower alcohol content in a drunker driver. This could happen only if a sort of magic potion neutralized the effects of alcohol (something similar exist in real life, but it’s a mineral and belongs to the large family of zeolites). Similarly, our carbon monoxide on Ti(4) should have received an antidote against the loss of electron density. The antidote could only be electron density: but where did it come from?  Simply from the oxygen atoms bound to Ti(4): they are close enough to CO and ready to help.

In short, what happens is that CO donates electron density to Ti, but the surface oxygens donate electron density to CO. The first process strenghtens the C-O bond, but the latter has opposite effects. As a result, you find the CO signal at frequencies lower than expected.  The two mechanisms are sketched in the figure below – my attempt to explain in a simple way the two-fold nature of the Ti-CO bond on titanium dioxide surfaces.


So, if you see high frequency bands in an infrared spectra of CO, please be warned: not necessarily they are due to very reactive sites on TiO2 surfaces.  And also keep in mind that carbon monoxide gives you indirect information on your sample.  Its signal can be influenced in complex ways by several factors – you might misinterpret your data, based on simple rules. From a practical viewpoint, i think that you should be aware of this, especially if you’re working on CO, or titanium dioxide materials. More speculatively, this story might help us to better understand how molecules interact with surface atoms. The complex, delicate balance of molecular-scale interactions is at the origin of technologically important phenomena – reactivity, catalysis, photocatalysis, just to mention some of them.  Understanding these interactions more deeply could help us to improve their practical applications. Much effort is still needed, but it’s worth doing!

This research by our group has been published recently (Deiana et.al., ChemPhysChem 2016, 17, 1956; 10.1002/cphc.201600284). It was also sketched in a short summary, and by an infographics in a previous post.  Here i used other words to tell the same story, because i feel it’s important to make research results accessible to a larger community.