Graphene scientists take the first pictures of atoms “swimming” in liquid

Graphene scientists take first pictures of atoms

Atoms swim in liquid thanks to graphene. Credit: University of Manchester

Graphene scientists from the University of Manchester have created a new ‘Petri nanodish’ using two-dimensional (2D) materials to create a new way of observing how atoms move in a liquid.

Publishing in the magazine temper natureIn this study, the team led by researchers from the National Graphene Institute (NGI) used stacks of two-dimensional materials such as graphene to trap liquid in order to understand how the presence of liquid alters the behavior of a solid.

For the first time, the team was able to capture images of single atoms “swimming” in a liquid. The findings could have a wide-ranging impact on the future development of green technologies such as hydrogen production.

When a solid surface comes into contact with a liquid, both substances change their composition in response to the proximity of the other. Atomic-scale interactions at solid-liquid interfaces control the behavior of batteries and fuel cells to generate clean electricity, as well as determine the efficiency of clean water generation and support many biological processes.

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

Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) is one of the few technologies that allows viewing and analyzing individual atoms. However, the TEM instrument requires a high vacuum environment, and the material structure changes in a vacuum. First author Dr. Nick Clark explained, “In our work we show that disinformation is provided if atomic behavior is studied in a vacuum rather than using liquid cells.”

Professor Roman Gorbachev was a pioneer in stacking 2D materials for electronics but here his group used the same techniques to develop a “liquid double graphene cell”. A two-dimensional layer of molybdenum disulfide was completely suspended in liquid and encapsulated by graphene windows. This new design allowed them to provide precisely controlled layers of liquid, enabling unprecedented video capture showing single atoms “swimming” around, surrounded by liquid.

By analyzing how the atoms move in the videos and comparing them with theoretical insights provided by colleagues at the University of Cambridge, the researchers were able to understand the effect of the fluid on atomic behavior. The liquid was found to accelerate the movement of atoms as well as change their preferred resting positions with respect to the basic solid.

The team studied a material promising to produce green hydrogen, but the experimental technology they developed could be used in many different applications.

Dr Nick Clark said: “This is an outstanding achievement and is only the beginning – we are already looking to use this technology to support the development of materials for sustainable chemical processing, needed to achieve the world’s net-zero ambitions.”

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more information:
Nick Clark et al, Tracing single adatoms in liquid in a transmission electron microscope, temper nature (2022). DOI: 10.1038 / s41586-022-05130-0

Presented by the University of Manchester

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