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The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
  • 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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Tiny Lasers from a Gallery of Whispers

Whispering gallery mode resonators rely on a phenomenon similar to an effect observed in circular galleries, and the same phenomenon applies to light. When light is stored in ring-shaped or spherical active resonators, the waves superimpose in such a way that it can result in laser light. This week in APL Photonics, investigators report a new type of dye-doped WGM micro-laser that produces light with tunable wavelengths.

Copper Catalyst Yields High Efficiency CO2-to-Fuels Conversion

Berkeley Lab scientists have developed a new electrocatalyst that can directly convert carbon dioxide into multicarbon fuels and alcohols using record-low inputs of energy. The work is the latest in a round of studies coming out of Berkeley Lab tackling the challenge of a creating a clean chemical manufacturing system that can put carbon dioxide to good use.

Solar-to-Fuel System Recycles CO2 to Make Ethanol and Ethylene

Berkeley Lab scientists have harnessed the power of photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide into fuels and alcohols at efficiencies far greater than plants. The achievement marks a significant advance in the effort to move toward sustainable sources of fuel.

New Evidence for Small, Short-Lived Drops of Early Universe Quark-Gluon Plasma?

UPTON, NY--Particles emerging from even the lowest energy collisions of small deuterons with large heavy nuclei at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC)--a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science User Facility for nuclear physics research at DOE's Brookhaven National Laboratory--exhibit behavior scientists associate with the formation of a soup of quarks and gluons, the fundamental building blocks of nearly all visible matter.

New Insights Into Nanocrystal Growth in Liquid

PNNL researchers have measured the forces that cause certain crystals to assemble, revealing competing factors that researchers might be able to control. The work has a variety of implications in both discovery and applied science. In addition to providing insights into the formation of minerals and semiconductor nanomaterials, it might also help scientists understand soil as it expands and contracts through wetting and drying cycles.

Discovery Could Reduce Nuclear Waste with Improved Method to Chemically Engineer Molecules

A new chemical principle discovered by scientists at Indiana University has the potential to revolutionize the creation of specially engineered molecules whose uses include the reduction of nuclear waste and the extraction of chemical pollutants from water and soil.

Biologist Reaches Into Electric Eel Tank, Comes Out with Equation to Measure Shocks

Vanderbilt University researcher Ken Catania stuck his arm into a tank with small electric eel 10 times -- the only way to get accurate measurements of the circuit created by animal, arm and water.

Fungi: Gene Activator Role Discovered

Specific modifications to fungi DNA may hold the secret to turning common plant degradation agents into biofuel producers.

New Study on Graphene-Wrapped Nanocrystals Makes Inroads Toward Next-Gen Fuel Cells

A new Berkeley Lab-led study provides insight into how an ultrathin coating can enhance the performance of graphene-wrapped nanocrystals for hydrogen storage applications.

Getting to the Point (Mutations) in Re-Engineering Biofuel-Producing Bacterial Enzymes

Helping bacteria become more efficient when breaking down fibrous plant waste into biofuel could result in more affordable biofuels for our gas tanks and sustainable products such as bioplastics. One way to achieve this goal is to re-engineer the bacterial enzyme complexes, called cellulosomes, which serve as catalysts in the degradation process. Researchers discuss one method to produce cellulosomes in The Journal of Chemical Physics.


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Tulane Receives Grant to Reduce Auto Emissions

Members of Tulane University's Shantz Lab will work with industrial scientists to assist in the development of next-generation materials designed to reduce harmful automotive emissions. The three-year old lab and its group of students have received a grant and equipment resources from SACHEM, Inc., a chemical science company.

Lab Leads New Effort in Materials Development

Lawrence Livermore National Lab will be part of a multi-lab effort to apply high-performance computing to US-based industry's discovery, design, and development of materials for severe environments under a new initiative announced by the Department of Energy (DOE) on Sept. 19.

Los Alamos Recognized as Top Diversity Employer

For the second straight year, Los Alamos National Laboratory was recognized as a top diversity employer by LATINA Style and STEM Workforce Diversity magazine.

SLAC-Led Project Will Use Artificial Intelligence to Prevent or Minimize Electric Grid Failures

A project led by the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory will combine artificial intelligence with massive amounts of data and industry experience from a dozen U.S. partners to identify places where the electric grid is vulnerable to disruption, reinforce those spots in advance and recover faster when failures do occur.

Chaudhuri named Director of Manufacturing Science and Engineering at Argonne National Laboratory

Argonne National Laboratory announces the appointment of Santanu Chaudhuri, Ph.D., as the Director of the Laboratory's new Manufacturing Science and Engineering initiative, effective Sept. 14, 2017

Boise State Researchers Earn Grants to Manufacture Sensors for Nuclear Reactors, Space

National grants will be used to purchase advanced manufacturing equipment needed to build sensors suitable for extreme environments.

Hewlett Packard's Suhas Kumar Wins 2017 Klein Award

Suhas Kumar, a postdoctoral researcher at Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), wants to develop next-generation information storage devices and better computers. His particular interest is a new type of electronic device, called a memristor, that could make future computer memories faster, more durable and more energy efficient than today's flash memory.

University of Arkansas Receives $3.2 Million From the Department of Energy

The U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy has awarded Distinguished Professor Alan Mantooth a total of $3.2 million for two projects that will accelerate the development and deployment of a new class of efficient, lightweight and reliable power converters.

Los Alamos Laboratory Director Charles F. McMillan to Retire at End of Year

Charles F. (Charlie) McMillan today informed employees of Los Alamos National Laboratory that he intends to step down as Laboratory Director at the end of this calendar year.

Binghamton University Opens $70 Million Smart Energy Building

Binghamton University celebrated the grand opening of its new $70 million, 114,000 square-foot Smart Energy Building today, Thursday, Aug. 31, at the Innovative Technologies Complex, on campus.


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Fungi: Gene Activator Role Discovered

Specific modifications to fungi DNA may hold the secret to turning common plant degradation agents into biofuel producers.

First Look at a Living Cell Membrane

Neutrons provide the solution to nanoscale examination of living cell membrane and confirm the existence of lipid rafts.

High Yield Biomass Conversion Strategy Ready for Commercialization

Researchers convert 80 percent of biomass into high-value products with strategy that's ready for commercialization.

Consequences of Drought Stress on Biofuels

Switchgrass cultivated during a year of severe drought inhibited microbial fermentation and resulting biofuel production.

Clay Minerals and Metal Oxides Change How Uranium Travels Through Sediments

Montmorillonite clays prevent uranium from precipitating from liquids, letting it travel with groundwater.

Tundra Loses Carbon with Rapid Permafrost Thaw

Seven-year-study shows plant growth does not sustainably balance carbon losses from solar warming and permafrost thaw.

Crystals Grow by Twisting, Aligning and Snapping Together

Van der Waals force, which that enables tiny crystals to grow, could be used to design new materials.

Vitamin B12 Fuels Microbial Growth

Scarce compound, vitamin B12, is key for cellular metabolism and may help shape microbial communities that affect environmental cycles and bioenergy production.

Carbon in Floodplain Unlikely to Cycle into the Atmosphere

Microbes leave a large fraction of carbon in anoxic sediments untouched, a key finding for understanding how watersheds influence Earth's ecosystem.

Bacterial Cell Wall Changes Produce More Fatty Molecules

New strategy greatly increases the production and secretion of biofuel building block lipids in bacteria able to grow at industrial scales.


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