Department of Biotechnology, Faculty of Advanced Sciences and Technologies, University of Isfahan, Isfahan, 73441-81746, Iran; UNESCO Centre for Membrane Science and Technology, School of Chemical Science and Engineering, University of New South Wales, Sydney, 2052, Australia. Electronic address: [Email]
In the last two years, the rapidly rising demand for lithium has exceeded supply, resulting in a sharp increase in the price of the metal. Conventional electric driven membrane processes can separate Li+ from divalent cations, but there is virtually no commercial membrane that can efficiently and selectively extract Li+ from a solution containing chemically similar ions such as Na+ and K+. Here, we show that the different movement behavior of Li+ ion within the sub-nanometre channel leads to Li+ ion-selectivity and high transport rate. Using inexpensive negatively charged 2D subnanometer hydrous phyllosilicate channels with interlayer space of 0.43 nm in a membrane-like morphology, we observed that for an interlayer spacing of below 1 nm, Li+ ions move along the length of the channel by jumping between its two walls. However, for above 1 nm spacing, the ions used only one channel wall to jump and travel. Molecular dynamic (MD) simulation also revealed that ions within the nanochannel exhibit acceleration-deceleration behavior. Experimental results showed that the nanochannels could selectively transport monovalent ions of Li+> Na+> and K+ while excluding other ions such as Cl- and Ca2+, with the selectivity ratios of 1.26, 1.59 and 1.36 for Li+/Na+, Li+/K+, and Na+/K+ respectively, which far exceed the mobility ratios in traditional porous ion exchange membranes. The findings of this work provide researchers with not only a new understanding of ions movement behavior within subnanometer confined areas but also make a platform for the future design of ion-selective membranes.