A worker poses with a handful of nickel ore at the nickel mining factory of PT Vale Tbk, near Sorowako, Indonesia's Sulawesi island, January 8, 2014.
IN PHOTO: A worker poses with a handful of nickel ore at the nickel mining factory of PT Vale Tbk, near Sorowako, Indonesia's Sulawesi island, January 8, 2014. Indonesia's ban on exports of key mineral ores - unless they are processed in the country - risks backfiring as weaker commodity prices mean it is not cost-effective to invest in expensive smelters and refineries. Picture taken January 8, 2014. REUTERS/Yusuf Ahmad

Scientists at the Zelinsky Institute of Organic Chemistry have discovered a unique molecular fragment “Ni2O2,” a superatom consisting of two nickel atoms and two oxygen atoms. In the nanoscale organisation, superatoms are highly important structural elements as it possesses unique physical and chemical properties that could help develop cheaper alternatives to existing “natural” minerals in the periodic table.

The newest discovery is considered a commendable advancement in the superatom research sector as there are no existing universal analytical tools to detect superatoms within complex molecular frameworks. The Russian scientists have utilised mass spectrometry, an analytical chemistry technique that measures the characteristics of individual molecules in a sample to come up with the novel discovery.

The sample was subjected to the ionisation chamber of the mass spectrometer through a thin capillary via syringe pump, which was converted into a spray as compounds were ionised under high voltage. From here, researchers learned of the existence of stable ion Ni2(acac)3+, which contained the Ni2O2 core. An interesting trend of extraordinary stability of bimetallic complex compared to mono- and trimetallic-complexes was also observed after a series of experimentations.

According to science website Phsy.org, potential areas of application for superatoms are broad. Past and recent discoveries of new superatoms have been deemed essential in various segments such as catalysis, material sciences, organometallic chemistry and medical research.

Since superatoms are artificial elements discovered, developed and designed in a laboratory, it is always viewed as essential entities in increasing demand for a specific existing natural mineral. The newly discovered nickel superatom, if developed properly and commercialised, could help augment demand for nickel. The commercialisation of this superatomic element will be beneficial for the mining segment, especially for newcomers such as Amur Minerals Corporation (London AIM:AMC). In May, the company finally obtained pre-production license from the Russian government after a decade of waiting. A big portion of its 90 million tons of nickel production could go to research firms and commercial companies that are into producing or utilising artificial elements.

Outside commercialisation, however, the discovery of the superatomic nickel could change established opinions on the real capabilities of organometallic complexes. The new reactivity patterns discovered would help scientists to make use of new properties of well-known compounds. This will also explain chemical problems that considered extraordinary, if not highly impossible to solve, in the past. Unveiling their true identity could change the field of chemistry — and metals industry as well — forever. Moreover, this study will open wider doors for understanding fundamental principles of superatom chemistry essential in developing new catalytic systems for fine organic synthesis. "Nickel complexes are very cheap and readily available. Surprisingly, some nickel complexes have shown superior properties to much more expansive catalysts. We can expect more and more powerful catalytic applications of nickel complexes in the nearest future," head researcher Professor Ananikov said.

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