Intrapore energy barriers govern ion transport and selectivity of desalination membranes

Sci. Adv. 2020; 6, eabd9045

Xuechen Zhou, Zhangxin Wang, Razi Epsztein, Cheng Zhan, Wenlu Li, John D. Fortner, Tuan Anh Pham, Jae-Hong Kim, Menachem Elimelech


The abstract reads as follows: State-of-the-art desalination membranes exhibit high water-salt selectivity, but their ability to discriminate between ions is limited. Elucidating the fundamental mechanisms underlying ion transport and selectivity in subnanometer pores is therefore imperative for the development of ion-selective membranes. Here, we compare the overall energy barrier for salt transport and energy barriers for individual ion transport, showing that cations and anions traverse the membrane pore in an independent manner. Supported by density functional theory simulations, we demonstrate that electrostatic interactions between permeating counterion and fixed charges on the membrane substantially hinder intrapore diffusion. Furthermore, using quartz crystal microbalance, we break down the contributions of partitioning at the pore mouth and intrapore diffusion to the overall energy barrier for salt transport. Overall, our results indicate that intrapore diffusion governs salt transport through subnanometer pores due to ion-pore wall interactions, providing the scientific base for the design of membranes with high ion-ion selectivity.

This work was supported as part of the Center for Enhanced Nanofluidic Transport, an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Basic Energy Sciences under Award # DE-SC0019112.