Graphene scientists capture first images of atoms ‘swimming’ in liquid

Graphene scientists from the University of Manchester have created a new “nano Petri dish” using two-dimensional (2D) materials to create a new method of observing how atoms move in liquid.

Publication in the journal, Nature, the team led by researchers based at the National Graphene Institute (NGI) used stacks of 2D materials like graphene to trap liquid to better understand how the presence of liquid changes the behavior of the solid.

The team was able to capture images of single atoms “swimming” in liquid for the first time. The results could have a widespread impact on the future development of green technologies such as hydrogen production.

When a solid surface is in contact with a liquid, the two substances change configuration in response to the proximity of each other. Such atomic-scale interactions at solid-liquid interfaces govern the behavior of batteries and fuel cells for clean electricity generation, as well as determining the efficiency of clean water generation and underpin many biological processes.

One of the lead researchers, Professor Sarah Haigh, commented: “Given the widespread industrial and scientific importance of such behaviour, it is truly surprising how much we still have to learn about the fundamentals behavior of atoms on surfaces in contact with liquids. One of the reasons for the lack of information is the lack of techniques capable of providing experimental data for solid-liquid interfaces.

Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) is one of the few techniques for viewing and analyzing individual atoms. However, the TEM instrument requires a high vacuum environment and the structure of materials changes in vacuum. First author Dr Nick Clark explained: “In our work, we show that misleading information is provided if atomic behavior is studied in a vacuum instead of using our liquid cells.”

Professor Roman Gorbachev pioneered 2D material stacking for electronics, but here his group has used those same techniques to develop a “dual graphene liquid cell”. A 2D layer of molybdenum disulfide was fully suspended in liquid and encapsulated by graphene windows. This new design allowed them to deliver precisely controlled layers of liquid, enabling the capture of unprecedented videos showing the single atoms swimming surrounded by liquid.

By analyzing how the atoms moved in the videos and comparing it to theoretical information provided by colleagues at the University of Cambridge, the researchers were able to understand the effect of the liquid on atomic behavior. It was found that the liquid accelerated the movement of atoms and also changed their preferred resting sites relative to the underlying solid.

The team investigated a promising material for producing green hydrogen, but the experimental technology they developed can be used for many different applications.

Clark said, “This is a milestone achievement and it’s just the beginning. We are already looking to use this technique to support the development of materials for the sustainable chemical processing needed to achieve global net zero ambitions.

– This press release was originally published on the University of Manchester website

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