Defect engineering of metal–organic frameworks (MOFs) offers promising opportunities for tailoring their properties to specific functions and applications. However, determining the structures of defects in MOFs—either point defects or extended ones—has proved challenging owing to the difficulty of directly probing local structures in these typically fragile crystals. Here we report the real-space observation, with sub-unit-cell resolution, of structural defects in the catalytic MOF UiO-66 using a combination of low-dose transmission electron microscopy and electron crystallography. Ordered ‘missing linker’ and ‘missing cluster’ defects were found to coexist. The missing-linker defects, reconstructed three-dimensionally with high precision, were attributed to terminating formate groups. The crystallization of the MOF was found to undergo an Ostwald ripening process, during which the defects also evolve: on prolonged crystallization, only the missing-linker defects remained. These observations were rationalized through density functional theory calculations. Finally, the missing-cluster defects were shown to be more catalytically active than their missing-linker counterparts for the isomerization of glucose to fructose.

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This research was supported by Competitive Center Funds (FCC/1/1972-19) to Y.H. and M.E. from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. This research used resources of the Core Labs of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Yi.Z. acknowledges financial support from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (21771161) and the Thousand Talents Program for Distinguished Young Scholars. S.L. and B.S. are thankful to the Materials Chemistry Consortium (EPSRC: EP/L000202) for provision of computer time on ARCHER UK National Supercomputing Service. B.S. acknowledges the Royal Society for financial support through an industry fellowship (F160062). The authors acknowledge helpful discussions with A. Goodwin, M. Cliffe and G. Shearer.

Author information

Author notes

  1. These authors contributed equally: Lingmei Liu, Zhijie Chen, Jianjian Wang.


  1. King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), Physical Sciences and Engineering Division, Advanced Membranes and Porous Materials (AMPM) Center, Thuwal, Saudi Arabia

    • Lingmei Liu
    • , Jianjian Wang
    •  & Yu Han
  2. KAUST, Physical Sciences and Engineering Division, AMPM Center, Functional Materials Design, Discovery and Development Research Group (FMD3), Thuwal, Saudi Arabia

    • Zhijie Chen
    • , Youssef Belmabkhout
    • , Karim Adil
    •  & Mohamed Eddaoudi
  3. Multi-scale Porous Materials Center, Institute of Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies, Chongqing University, Chongqing, China

    • Jianjian Wang
    •  & Yuxin Zhang
  4. KAUST, Core Labs, Thuwal, Saudi Arabia

    • Daliang Zhang
  5. Department of Chemical Engineering, Zhejiang University of Technology, Hangzhou, China

    • Yihan Zhu
  6. Advanced Materials Research Group, Faculty of Engineering, University of Nottingham, University Park, Nottingham, UK

    • Sanliang Ling
  7. KAUST, KAUST Catalysis Center (KCC), Thuwal, Saudi Arabia

    • Kuo-Wei Huang
    •  & Yu Han
  8. Department of Chemistry, University College London, London, UK

    • Ben Slater


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Y.H., D.Z. and M.E. conceived and designed the experiments. L.L. acquired the low-dose high-resolution HRTEM images. Z.C., J.W., Y.B. and K.A. designed and synthesized MOF samples. Z.C., J.W. and Y.B. performed X-ray diffraction and N2 adsorption characterizations. L.L., D.Z., Yi.Z. and Y.H. processed and analysed the HRTEM images. D.Z. solved the 3D structure of the missing-linker defect. S.L. and B.S. performed theoretical calculations. J.W., Yu.Z. and K.-W.H. designed and performed the catalytic reactions. Y.H., D.Z., M.E., S.L. and B.S. wrote the manuscript and all authors commented on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Daliang Zhang or Ben Slater or Mohamed Eddaoudi or Yu Han.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Methods; Supplementary Figs. 1–16; Supplementary Tables 1–5; Supplementary refs. 1–14

  2. Crystallographic data

    Atomic coordinates of optimised fcu structure

  3. Crystallographic data

    Atomic coordinates of optimised bcu structure

  4. Crystallographic data

    Atomic coordinates of optimised reo structure

  5. Crystallographic data

    Atomic coordinates of optimised scu structure

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