Nanoscale View of Assisted Ion Transport across the Liquid-Liquid Interface

During solvent extraction, amphiphilic extractants assist the transport of metal ions across the liquid–liquid interface between an aqueous ionic solution and an organic solvent. Investigations of the role of the interface in ion transport challenge our ability to probe fast molecular processes at liquid–liquid interfaces on nanometer-length scales. Recent development of a thermal switch for solvent extraction has addressed this challenge, which has led to the characterization by X-ray surface scattering of interfacial intermediate states in the extraction process. Here, we review and extend these earlier results. We find that trivalent rare earth ions, Y(III) and Er(III), combine with bis(hexadecyl) phosphoric acid (DHDP) extractants to form inverted bilayer structures at the interface; these appear to be condensed phases of small ion–extractant complexes. The stability of this unconventional interfacial structure is verified by molecular dynamics simulations. The ion–extractant complexes at the interface are an intermediate state in the extraction process, characterizing the moment at which ions have been transported across the aqueous–organic interface, but have not yet been dispersed in the organic phase. In contrast, divalent Sr(II) forms an ion–extractant complex with DHDP that leaves it exposed to the water phase; this result implies that a second process that transports Sr(II) across the interface has yet to be observed. Calculations demonstrate that the budding of reverse micelles formed from interfacial Sr(II) ion–extractant complexes could transport Sr(II) across the interface. Our results suggest a connection between the observed interfacial structures and the extraction mechanism, which ultimately affects the extraction selectivity and kinetics.


Zhu Liang1, Wei Bu2, Karl J. Schweighofer3, David J. Walwark Jr.3, Jeffrey S. Harvey1, Glenn R. Hanlon1, Daniel Amoanu4, Cem Erol1, Ilan Benjamin3, and Mark L. Schlossman1


1Department of Physics, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL 60607

2ChemMatCARS, Center for Advanced Radiation Sources, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637

3Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of California, Santa Cruz, CA 95064

4Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL 60607


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DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1701389115