First image of atoms “swimming” in liquid captured

Artist's impression of the platinum atoms in a liquid trapped by two layers of graphene.  Image Credit: University of Manchester

Artist’s impression of the platinum atoms in a liquid trapped by two layers of graphene. Image Credit: University of Manchester

Researchers at the University of Manchester have developed a new way to study liquid cells – and in doing so, for the first time, they have visualized the movement of individual atoms in a liquid. This achievement could lead to a better understanding of critical clean energy generation technologies and important biological processes.

Published in Naturethe team placed a solution of salt water between two layers of graphene, a 2D material made of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal grid. In this cell they placed a layer of molybdenum disulfide and platinum atoms.

Using transmission electron microscopy (TEM), the team studied how the platinum atoms move across the surface of the material. TEM requires vacuum conditions, so without the construction of the graphene that keeps the liquid trapped, it would be impossible to study. Vacuum conditions actually change the behavior of the material.

“In our work, we show that misleading information is provided when studying atomic behavior in vacuum rather than using our liquid cells,” said first author Dr. Nick Clark in a pronunciation. “This is a milestone and it is only the beginning – we are already looking to use this technique to support the development of sustainable chemical processing materials needed to achieve the world’s net-zero ambitions. “

The platinum atoms rested on the internal surfaces and the liquid moved them at a faster rate than without liquid. They also found that the presence of salt water led to changes in the preferred resting place of the atoms on the surface.

The work sees the cells as a way to produce hydrogen in a sustainable way, but that is only one possible application. Similar cells are used in energy storage and clean water generation, and they can also be used as a proxy for biological systems where liquid and solids interact.

“Given the widespread industrial and scientific importance of such behavior, it is truly astonishing how much we still have to learn about the basics of how atoms behave on surfaces that come into contact with liquids. One of the reasons for the lack of information is the lack of techniques that can provide experimental data for solid-liquid interfaces,” said Professor Sarah Haigh, one of the lead researchers.

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