Abstract

The relationships between synthetic zeolites and their natural counterparts that have been unveiled by theoretical studies have contributed to improving the properties and applications of zeolite-based materials in strategic areas such as industrial catalysis, environmental protection, and solar energy harvesting. To pinpoint the role of modeling in zeolite science, we discuss an example of computationally driven problem solving: can tetrahedral frameworks sustain straight (i.e., 180°) Si-O-Si bond angles? The true crystal symmetry of zeolite ferrierite (FER), especially in its all-silica form, had been intensely debated for 30 years before being solved in the Pmnn space group. Yet there are indications that an Immm structure with energetically unfavorable linear Si-O-Si linkages could be formed at high temperature. To gather insight, we perform density functional theory (DFT) optimizations and frequency calculations of all-silica ferrierite in both the Pmnn and Immm space groups. Our results indicate that Pmnn is more stable than Immm, in line with experiments. While the Pmnn structure is a true minimum in the energy profile of ferrierite, the Immm structure has four imaginary frequency vibrations, three of which are localized on the 180° Si-O-Si angles. This suggests that ferrierites with Immm symmetry may be classified as metastable phases. Such a designation is also supported by first-principles molecular dynamics on Immm FER, showing that the average value of 180° actually results from Si-O-Si angle inversion. An implication of this study with interesting geological and technological consequences is the association of straight Si-O-Si angles experimentally detected in open-framework or low-density silicates to an angle-inversion process occurring at the femtosecond scale. Such flexibility of the apparently flat Si-O-Si linkages might play an important role in sorption phenomena, which are ubiquitous in geological processes and industrial applications alike.

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