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Unimpeded Permeation Of Water Through Helium-Leak–Tight Graphene-Based Membranes

R. Nair, H. A. Wu, P. Jayaram, I. Grigorieva, Andre K. Geim
Published 2012 · Chemistry, Medicine, Physics

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Porous Membranes Thin semi-permeable membranes are commonly used as chemical barriers or for filtration purposes. While the size of the pores will influence which molecules are able to pass, other factors—including the surface chemistry of the pore walls, electrostatic interactions, and differences in solubility—can also affect the diffusion rates. There is also a trade-off between the thickness of the membrane regarding strength and permeation rates (see the Perspective by Paul). Karan et al. (p. 444) fabricated membranes from amorphous carbon, which showed excellent strength and could be used for filtrations involving organic solvents. Nair et al. (p. 442) observed unusual behavior in graphene-based membranes which were able to prevent the diffusion of many small-molecule gases, including helium, but showed almost barrier-free movement of water. Graphite oxide membranes are impermeable to many liquids, vapors, and gases, including He, but allow evaporation of water. Permeation through nanometer pores is important in the design of materials for filtration and separation techniques and because of unusual fundamental behavior arising at the molecular scale. We found that submicrometer-thick membranes made from graphene oxide can be completely impermeable to liquids, vapors, and gases, including helium, but these membranes allow unimpeded permeation of water (H2O permeates through the membranes at least 1010 times faster than He). We attribute these seemingly incompatible observations to a low-friction flow of a monolayer of water through two-dimensional capillaries formed by closely spaced graphene sheets. Diffusion of other molecules is blocked by reversible narrowing of the capillaries in low humidity and/or by their clogging with water.
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