Controlling the Intermediate Structure of an Ionic Liquid for f‑Block Element Separations

Recent research has revealed molecular structure beyond the inner coordination sphere is essential in defining the performance of separation processes; nevertheless, such structure remains largely unexplored. Here we apply small-angle neutron scattering (SANS) and X-ray absorption fine structure (XAFS) spectroscopy to investigate the structure of an ionic liquid system studied for f-block element separations. SANS data reveal dramatic changes in the ionic liquid microstructure (∼150 Å) which we demonstrate can be controlled by judicious selection of counterion. Mesoscale structural features (>500 Å) are also observed as a function of metal concentration. XAFS analysis supports formation of extended aggregate structures, similar to those observed in traditional solvent extraction processes, and suggests additional parallels may be drawn from further study. Achieving precise tunability over the intermediate features is an important development in controlling mesoscale structure and realizing advanced new forms of soft matter.