They found that protons do flow steadily across the nanotube, carrying an electric current. Protons flow easily through the nanochannel because they are so small, but the researchers observed that other positively charged ions, such as sodium, can also get through but only if enough electric field is applied. Sodium ions are much larger than protons, so they take longer to cross once they enter. While they travel across the channel, they block protons from flowing, leading to a brief disruption in current known as the Coulter effect.
Strano believes that the channels allow only positively charged ions to flow through them because the ends of the tubes contain negative charges, which attract positive ions. However, he plans to build channels that attract negative ions by adding positive charges to the tube.
Once the researchers have these two types of channels, they hope to embed them in a membrane that could also be used for water desalination. More than 97 percent of Earth's water is in the oceans, but that vast reservoir is undrinkable unless the salt is removed. The current desalination methods, distillation and reverse osmosis, are expensive and require lots of energy. So a nanotube membrane that allows both sodium and chloride ions (which are negatively charged) to flow out of seawater could become a cheaper way to desalinate water.
This study marks the first time that individual ions dissolved in water have been observed at room temperature. This means the nanochannels could also detect impurities, such as arsenic or mercury, in drinking water. (Ions can be identified by how long it takes them to cross the channel, which depends on their size). "If a single arsenic ion is floating in solution, you could detect it," says Strano.
|Contact: Jen Hirsch|
Massachusetts Institute of Technology