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High-Resolution Ion-Flux Imaging of Proton Transport through Graphene|Nafion Membranes

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journal contribution
posted on 14.03.2022, 23:48 authored by Cameron L. Bentley, Minkyung Kang, Saheed Bukola, Stephen E. Creager, Patrick R. Unwin
In 2014, it was reported that protons can traverse between aqueous phases separated by nominally pristine monolayer graphene and hexagonal boron nitride (h-BN) films (membranes) under ambient conditions. This intrinsic proton conductivity of the one-atom-thick crystals, with proposed through-plane conduction, challenged the notion that graphene is impermeable to atoms, ions, and molecules. More recent evidence points to a defect-facilitated transport mechanism, analogous to transport through conventional ion-selective membranes based on graphene and h-BN. Herein, local ion-flux imaging is performed on chemical vapor deposition (CVD) graphene|Nafion membranes using an “electrochemical ion (proton) pump cell” mode of scanning electrochemical cell microscopy (SECCM). Targeting regions that are free from visible macroscopic defects (e.g., cracks, holes, etc.) and assessing hundreds to thousands of different sites across the graphene surfaces in a typical experiment, we find that most of the CVD graphene|Nafion membrane is impermeable to proton transport, with transmission typically occurring at ≈20–60 localized sites across a ≈0.003 mm2 area of the membrane (>5000 measurements total). When localized proton transport occurs, it can be a highly dynamic process, with additional transmission sites “opening” and a small number of sites “closing” under an applied electric field on the seconds time scale. Applying a simple equivalent circuit model of ion transport through a cylindrical nanopore, the local transmission sites are estimated to possess dimensions (radii) on the (sub)­nanometer scale, implying that rare atomic defects are responsible for proton conductance. Overall, this work reinforces SECCM as a premier tool for the structure–property mapping of microscopically complex (electro)­materials, with the local ion-flux mapping configuration introduced herein being widely applicable for functional membrane characterization and beyond, for example in diagnosing the failure mechanisms of protective surface coatings.