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  • 2017-06-13 13:05:08
  • Article ID: 676308

Small Scale, Big Improvements

Molecular scale science may inform water purification methods, battery improvements

Methods to improve water purification or build better batteries are problems that have challenged scientists for decades. Advances have inched forward, but rising demand moves the finish line further and further away.

At the same time, the chemical reactions that make these improvements possible occur at scales invisible to the naked eye (the atomic scale) where liquids and solid surfaces meet, making the work even more difficult.

Knowing how these chemical interactions occur at the solid-liquid interface is critical in problems of great interest to the Department of Energy (DOE), particularly as it relates to environmental and water quality issues that may be affected by large-scale energy production activities.

Now, a new technique developed by a team including University of Delaware Prof. Neil Sturchio and colleagues at Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Chicago has produced real-time observations documenting the chemical reactions that happen between liquids and solids.

The technique provides data that can be used to improve predictions of how nutrients and contaminants will move in natural systems or to gauge the effectiveness of water purification methods where ion exchange is critical to sanitization.

It also may help scientists tease out limiting factors to supercapacitors -- robust energy storage devices that are often used over common batteries to power consumer electronics, hybrid vehicles, even large industrial-scale power.

Energy exchange in chemical reactions

Sturchio, a geochemist, has studied mineral/water interactions for 25 years with funding from DOE. He and his collaborators recently demonstrated a new way of studying the microscopic structure and processes that occur where minerals and water meet, using X-ray beams to trigger the reactions while capturing images of their effects on the mineral surface.

Now using a method called Resonant Anomalous X-Ray Reflectivity (RAXR), the researchers are able to go one step further and distinguish the identity of the element being studied.

"With our previous methods, we could see the atomic-scale electron density profile of the interfacial region -- a nanometer-thick zone including the mineral surface and the adjacent solution -- but couldn't uniquely identify the atomic layers," said Sturchio, professor and chair of the Department of Geological Sciences in UD's College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment.

The technique requires a high-quality crystal so the researchers selected mica, a mineral similar in structure to the abundant clay minerals in soils that produces an atomically flat crystal useful in laboratory investigations of interfacial properties.

The researchers reflected an intense X-ray beam off a mica sample in alternating contact with two different salt solutions containing rubidium and sodium chloride. By changing the angle of the beam, scientists were able to scan the interfacial profile at atomic scale. By changing the energy of the beam at a fixed angle, they could isolate the distribution of rubidium ions in the interfacial region.

"In this case, we can tune in and ask specifically where is the rubidium? How is it attached to the mica crystal and how is it released to the solution?" he said.

According to Sturchio, most chemical reactions in groundwater and in the atmosphere, as well as during industrial processes including water purification and some forms of energy storage, happen at surfaces such as electrodes or particles. As a chemical reaction occurs, ions are kicked off or pulled on and energy is exchanged. Understanding quantitatively how the ions are exchanged at this scale can be used to design chemical processes to improve water purification or understand how contaminants are transported in soil and groundwater.

In this project, the researchers wanted to see what it would take to get the rubidium, an alkali metal, to release from the mica surface once it was attached. They accomplished this by quickly changing the solution flowing over the mica crystal from rubidium chloride to a more concentrated sodium chloride, then timed the reaction to determine how long it took for the rubidium ions to release (desorb) from the mica and for the sodium chloride ions to take their place (adsorb).

Generally, adsorption reactions are thought to occur in milliseconds, but here it took 25 seconds for the rubidium to release from the surface (desorption) and the sodium ions to take its place (adsorption).

The closer the rubidium was to the mineral/water interface, the more fixed its position became (because of electrostatic energy - the kind that makes a balloon stick to a wall after you rub it against a sweater) and the more energy was required to pry it away from the mica. Conversely, the more water molecules between the crystal's surface and the rubidium ion, the more wiggle room the rubidium had in its position and the less energy it took to break away. The experiments helped to quantify the minute amounts of energy transferred during alkali ion exchange at this interface, and the involvement of water molecules in the reaction mechanism.

The reaction was slower than the researchers anticipated, and while further study is required, they agree the results provide evidence for understanding the timeframes necessary for desired reactions to occur.

By contrast, when the solutions were switched back, the rubidium adsorbed onto the mica surface much more rapidly than it desorbed, by shedding its attached water molecules, demonstrating that hydration is important to the reaction.

"To design an industrial process you need to know exactly what's happening at the surface," Sturchio said. "As far as we know, this is the first time anyone has documented such detailed information on how these ion exchange reactions are happening at a mineral surface in contact with water, and in this case, we have good evidence for how long it actually takes."

The study was published Friday, June 9, in the journal Nature Communications. The work, titled "Real-time observations of cation exchange kinetics and dynamics at the muscovite-water interface," was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences, Chemical Sciences, Geosciences, and Biosciences Division under contracts DE-AC02-06CH11357.

Sang Soo Lee, a clay mineralogist, and Paul Fenter, principal investigator on the project and a physicist and X-ray scattering expert, both with Argonne National Laboratory, designed the study. UD's Sturchio and Kathryn L. Nagy, a geochemist and clay mineral expert at University of Illinois at Chicago, were co-authors on the work.

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Rutgers Scientists Discover 'Legos of Life'

Rutgers scientists have found the "Legos of life" - four core chemical structures that can be stacked together to build the myriad proteins inside every organism - after smashing and dissecting nearly 10,000 proteins to understand their component parts. The four building blocks make energy available for humans and all other living organisms, according to a study published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Small Hydroelectric Dams Increase Globally with Little Research, Regulations

University of Washington researchers have published the first major assessment of small hydropower dams around the world -- including their potential for growth -- and highlight the incredibly variability in how dams of varying sizes are categorized, regulated and studied.

Researchers Reveal How Microbes Cope in Phosphorus-Deficient Tropical Soil

A team led by the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory has uncovered how certain soil microbes cope in a phosphorus-poor environment to survive in a tropical ecosystem. Their novel approach could be applied in other ecosystems to study various nutrient limitations and inform agriculture and terrestrial biosphere modeling.

Scientists Discover Material Ideal for Smart Photovoltaic Windows

Researchers at Berkeley Lab discovered that a form of perovskite, one of the hottest materials in solar research due to its high conversion efficiency, works surprisingly well as a stable and photoactive semiconductor material that can be reversibly switched between a transparent state and a non-transparent state, without degrading its electronic properties.

Biofuels Feedstock Study Supports Billion-Ton Estimate

Can farmers produce at least 1 billion tons of biomass per year that can be used as biofuels feedstock? The answer is yes.

On the Rebound

New research from the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory and Stanford University has found that palladium nanoparticles can repair atomic dislocations in their crystal structure, potentially leading to other advances in material science.

Coupling Experiments to Theory to Build a Better Battery

A Berkeley Lab-led team of researchers has reported that a new lithium-sulfur battery component allows a doubling in capacity compared to a conventional lithium-sulfur battery, even after more than 100 charge cycles.

DRIFTing to Fast, Precise Data

Non-destructive technique identifies key variations in Alaskan soils, quickly providing insights into carbon levels.

A Shortcut to Modeling Sickle Cell Disease

Using Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Titan supercomputer, a team led by Brown University's George Karniadakis devised a multiscale model of sickle cell disease that captures what happens inside a red blood cell affected by the disease.

Remotely Predicting Leaf Age in Tropical Forests

New approach offers data across species, sites, and canopies, providing insights into carbon uptake by forests.


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Theoretical Physicist Elena Belova Named to Editorial Board of Physics of Plasmas

Theoretical physicist Elena Belova named to editorial board of Physics of Plasmas

Superconducting X-Ray Laser Takes Shape in Silicon Valley

An area known for high-tech gadgets and innovation will soon be home to an advanced superconducting X-ray laser that stretches 3 miles in length, built by a collaboration of national laboratories. On January 19, the first section of the machine's new accelerator arrived by truck at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park after a cross-country journey that began in Batavia, Illinois, at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

Kelsey Stoerzinger Earns Young Investigator Lectureship

Kelsey Stoerzinger, Pauling Fellow at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is one of the 2018 Caltech Young Investigator Lecturers in Engineering and Applied Physics.

North Dakota State University Joins Two National Distributed Computing Groups

The NDSU Center for Computationally Assisted Science and Technology (CCAST) joins OSG (Open Science Grid) and XSEDE (Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment).

DOE Announces Funding for New HPC4Manufacturing Industry Projects

The Department of Energy's Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO) today announced the funding of $1.87 million for seven new industry projects under an ongoing initiative designed to utilize DOE's high-performance computing (HPC) resources and expertise to advance U.S. manufacturing and clean energy technologies.

DOE Announces First Awardees for New HPC4Materials for Severe Environments Program

The Department of Energy's Office of Fossil Energy (FE) today announced the funding of $450,000 for the first two private-public partnerships under a brand-new initiative aimed at discovering, designing and scaling up production of novel materials for severe environments.

Two Argonne Scientists Recognized for a Decade of Breakthroughs

Two scientists with the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory have been named to the Web of Science's Highly Cited List of 2017, ranking in the top 1 percent of their peers by citations and subject area. Materials Scientist Khalil Amine and Energy and Environmental Policy Scientist David Streets say they are thrilled to see their work -- and the laboratory -- recognized in such a way.

Argonne Welcomes Department of Energy Secretary Perry

U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry visited Argonne National Laboratory yesterday, getting a first-hand view of the multifaceted and interdisciplinary research program laboratory of the Department.

Argonne names John Quintana Deputy Laboratory Director for Operations and COO

John Quintana has been named Deputy Laboratory Director for Operations and Chief Operations Officer (COO) of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory.

Developing Next-Generation Sensing Technologies

Recently, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) announced $20 million in funding for 15 projects that will develop a new class of sensor systems to enable significant energy savings via reduced demand for heating and cooling in residential and commercial buildings.


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Exploring Past, Present, and Future Water Availability Regionally, Globally

New open-source software simulates river and runoff resources.

Arctic Photosynthetic Capacity and Carbon Dioxide Assimilation Underestimated by Terrestrial Biosphere Models

New measurements offer data vital to projecting plant response to environmental changes.

DRIFTing to Fast, Precise Data

Non-destructive technique identifies key variations in Alaskan soils, quickly providing insights into carbon levels.

Superconducting Tokamaks Are Standing Tall

Plasma physicists significantly improve the vertical stability of a Korean fusion device.

Graphene Flexes Its Muscle

Crumpling reduces rigidity in an otherwise stiff material, making it less prone to catastrophic failure.

Remotely Predicting Leaf Age in Tropical Forests

New approach offers data across species, sites, and canopies, providing insights into carbon uptake by forests.

What's the Noise Eating Quantum Bits?

The magnetic noise caused by adsorbed oxygen molecules is "eating at" the phase stability of quantum bits, mitigating the noise is vital for future quantum computers.

Rewritable Wires Could Mean No More Obsolete Circuitry

An electric field switches the conductivity on and off in atomic-scale channels, which could allow for upgrades at will.

Filtering Water Better than Nature

Water passes through human-made straws faster than the "gold standard" protein, allowing us to filter seawater.

Machine Learning Provides a Bridge to the Texture of the Quantum World

Machine learning and neural networks are the foundation of artificial intelligence and image recognition, but now they offer a bridge to see and recognize exotic insulating phases in quantum materials.


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