Today in cool stuff happening in university labs: Northwestern researchers have created two new record-setting synthetic materials with the greatest internal surface areas ever seen. There are a lot of potential applications for these metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), named NU-109 and NU-110, but first the mind-bending fact: if you were to unfold a crystal of NU-110 the size of a grain of salt, the surface area would cover a desktop.

If you were to do the same with a single gram of NU-110, the internal surface area would cover one-and-a-half football fields. One kilogram? Something like seven square kilometers, or nearly three square miles. That’s a lot of surface area packed into a really small space.

MOFs are basically tiny cage-like structures made of a bunch of organic linkages fused together by metal atoms, creating a molecule that is extremely porous and is arranged in such a way that a lot of internal surface area is exposed. They hold a lot of promise for materials science in general, and more specifically for things like storing natural gas in a state that could more easily be pumped into vehicles. The technology is currently being developed and commercialized by a NU spinout company called NuMat Technologies.