LIVERMORE, Calif. - Molecular transport across cellular membranes is essential to many of life's processes, for example electrical signaling in nerves, muscles and synapses.
In biological systems, the membranes often contain a slippery inner surface with selective filter regions made up of specialized protein channels of sub-nanometer size. These pores regulate cellular traffic, allowing some of the smallest molecules in the world to traverse the membrane extremely quickly, while at the same time rejecting other small molecules and ions.
Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are mimicking that process with manmade carbon nanotube membranes, which have pores that are 100,000 times smaller than a human hair, and were able to determine the rejection mechanism within the pores.
"Hydrophobic, narrow diameter carbon nanotubes can provide a simplified model of membrane channels by reproducing these critical features in a simpler and more robust platform," said Olgica Bakajin, who led the LLNL team whose study appeared in the June 6 online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In the initial discovery, reported in the May 19, 2006 issue of the journal Science, the LLNL team found that water molecules in a carbon nanotube move fast and do not stick to the nanotube's super smooth surface, much like water moves through biological channels. The water molecules travel in chains - because they interact with each other strongly via hydrogen bonds.
"You can visualize it as mini-freight trains of chain-bonded water molecules flying at high speed through a narrow nanotube tunnel," said Hyung Gyu Park, an LLNL postdoctoral researcher and a team member.
One of the most promising applications for carbon nanotube membranes is sea water desalination. These membranes will some day be able to replace conventional membranes and greatly reduce energy use for desalination.
|Contact: Anne Stark|
DOE/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory