Atomic-scale capillaries block smallest ions, thanks to graphene

phys.org | 1/11/2019 | Staff
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Researchers at The University of Manchester's National Graphene Institute in the UK have succeeded in making artificial channels just one atom in size for the first time. The new capillaries, which are very much like natural protein channels such as aquaporins, are small enough to block the flow of smallest ions like Na+ and Cl- but allow water to flow through freely. As well as improving our fundamental understanding of molecular transport at the atomic scale, and especially in biological systems, the structures could be ideal in desalination and filtration technologies.

"Obviously, it is impossible to make capillaries smaller than one atom in size," explains team leader Sir Andre Geim. "Our feat seemed nigh on impossible, even in hindsight, and it was difficult to imagine such tiny capillaries just a couple of years ago."

Protein - Channels - Aquaporins - Water - Ions

Naturally occurring protein channels, such as aquaporins, allow water to quickly permeate through them but block hydrated ions larger than around 7 A in size thanks to mechanisms like steric (size) exclusion and electrostatic repulsion. Researchers have been trying to make artificial capillaries that work just like their natural counterparts, but despite much progress in creating nanoscale pores and nanotubes, all such structures to date have still been much bigger than biological channels.

Geim and colleagues have now fabricated channels that are around just 3.4 A in height. This is about half the size of the smallest hydrated ions, such as K+ and Cl-, which have a diameter of 6.6 A. These channels behave just like protein channels in that they are small enough to block these ions but are sufficiently big to allow water molecules (with a diameter of around 2.8 A) to freely flow through.

Structures - Help - Development - Filters - Water

The structures could, importantly, help in the development of cost-effective, high-flux filters for water desalination and related technologies – a holy grail for...
(Excerpt) Read more at: phys.org
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