Intermediate-sized molecular sieving of styrene from larger and smaller analogues


Molecular sieving can lead to ultrahigh selectivity and low regeneration energy because it completely excludes all larger molecules via a size restriction mechanism. However, it allows adsorption of all molecules smaller than the pore aperture and so separations of complicated mixtures can be hindered. Here, we report an intermediate-sized molecular sieving (iSMS) effect in a metal–organic framework (MAF-41) designed with restricted flexibility, which also exhibits superhydrophobicity and ultrahigh thermal/chemical stabilities. Single-component isotherms and computational simulations show adsorption of styrene but complete exclusion of the larger analogue ethylbenzene (because it exceeds the maximal aperture size) and smaller toluene/benzene molecules that have insufficient adsorption energy to open the cavity. Mixture adsorption experiments show a high styrene selectivity of 1,250 for an ethylbenzene/styrene mixture and 3,300 for an ethylbenzene/styrene/toluene/benzene mixture (orders of magnitude higher than previous reports). This produces styrene with a purity of 99.9%+ in a single adsorption–desorption cycle. Controlling/restricting flexibility is the key for iSMS and can be a promising strategy for discovering other exceptional properties.

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Fig. 1: From conventional molecular sieve to intermediate-sized molecular sieve.
Fig. 2: X-ray crystal structures.
Fig. 3: Adsorption isotherms.
Fig. 4: Mixture separation performance.
Fig. 5: High stability and superhydrophobicity.

Data availability

The data that support the plots within this paper and other finding of this study are available from the corresponding authors upon reasonable request. CCDC 1581460−1581461 entries contain supplementary single-crystal X-ray diffraction data for pX and structural details of 1′. These data can be obtained free of charge from The Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre via


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This work was supported by the NSFC (21731007, 21821003, 91622109 and 21701191), Guangdong Pearl River Talents Program (2017BT01C161) and Guangdong Province Key Area R&D Program (2019B010940001).

Author information




J.-P.Z. designed the research. D.-D.Z. performed syntheses and measurements. C.W., S.-S.W. and Z.-W.M. performed adsorption and selectivity measurements. D.-D.Z., Z.-M.Y. and R.-K.H. performed crystal structure determination. D.-D.Z., P.C., Y.D., H.Y. and C.-T.H. performed computational simulations and analyses. N.-Y.H. performed GC-MS analyses. D.-D.Z. and J.-P.Z. wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Jie-Peng Zhang.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary methods, Supplementary Figs. 1–37, Supplementary Tables 1–7, Supplementary references 1,2

Supplementary Data

Crystallographic information file for the MAF-41 structure (pX), and the MAF-41 structure after removal of the para-xylene guest (1′)

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Zhou, DD., Chen, P., Wang, C. et al. Intermediate-sized molecular sieving of styrene from larger and smaller analogues. Nat. Mater. 18, 994–998 (2019).

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