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A recently discovered metal organic framework can act as a “quantum sieve”, with pores that selectively open for deuterium molecules at the right temperatures and pressures. The material was created in Germany by a team led by Stefan Kaskel and Thomas Heine at the Dresden University of Technology, and  Michael Hirscher at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart. Its development could reduce the considerable cost of isolating deuterium, which is an isotope of hydrogen that has several practical uses.

There are two stable isotopes of hydrogen and by far the most abundant is hydrogen-1 (H), which comprises a single proton. Hydrogen-2 (deuterium or D) comprises a proton and a neutron and accounts for just 0.015% of hydrogen nuclei in sea water. An isotope with two neutrons – tritium or T — is also found on Earth but is much rarer and unstable.

Deuterium has a range of uses from nuclear fusion to medical imaging and drug discovery. Today, chemical and physical processes are used to extract heavy water molecules – which contain two deuterium nuclei – from water. Then deuterium gas is created by electrolysis. The process is very expensive, with one gram of deuterium costing more than a gram of gold.

Some researchers believe that quantum sieves could do the job at much lower cost. A quantum sieve is a material that is porous on the molecular scale. The sieve is designed so that some types of molecules interact with the pores and pass through, while others do not.

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