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Giant osmotic energy conversion measured in a single transmembrane boron nitride nanotube


New models of fluid transport are expected to emerge from the confinement of liquids at the nanoscale1,2, with potential applications in ultrafiltration, desalination and energy conversion3. Nevertheless, advancing our fundamental understanding of fluid transport on the smallest scales requires mass and ion dynamics to be ultimately characterized across an individual channel to avoid averaging over many pores. A major challenge for nanofluidics thus lies in building distinct and well-controlled nanochannels, amenable to the systematic exploration of their properties. Here we describe the fabrication and use of a hierarchical nanofluidic device made of a boron nitride nanotube that pierces an ultrathin membrane and connects two fluid reservoirs. Such a transmembrane geometry allows the detailed study of fluidic transport through a single nanotube under diverse forces, including electric fields, pressure drops and chemical gradients. Using this device, we discover very large, osmotically induced electric currents generated by salinity gradients, exceeding by two orders of magnitude their pressure-driven counterpart. We show that this result originates in the anomalously high surface charge carried by the nanotube’s internal surface in water at large pH, which we independently quantify in conductance measurements. The nano-assembly route using nanostructures as building blocks opens the way to studying fluid, ionic and molecule transport on the nanoscale, and may lead to biomimetic functionalities. Our results furthermore suggest that boron nitride nanotubes could be used as membranes for osmotic power harvesting under salinity gradients.

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Figure 1: Hierarchical single nanotube nanofluidic set-up.
Figure 2: Electrical conductance and chemical reactivity of the BNNT.
Figure 3: Pressure-driven streaming.
Figure 4: Osmotic power generation under salinity gradients.

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L.B. acknowledges support from ERC-AG project Micromegas and the French ANR under the programme P3N. We thank D. Cornu, M. Bechelany, A. Brioude for providing the boron nitride nanotubes, D. Guillot for building the experimental fluidic set-up and P. Vincent for assistance with the SEM. L.B. thanks M.-L. Bocquet for discussions on boron nitride chemistry. We thank L. Auvray, E. Charlaix, C. Cottin-Bizonne, J. Gierak, D. M. Huang, L. Joly, A. Madouri, R. Netz, J. Palacci and C. Ybert for many discussions. We thank the Centre Lyonnais de Microscopie for providing access to the dual-beam FIB.

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Authors and Affiliations



L.B. conceived the project. P.P. and S.T.P. designed the transmembrane nanotube system. A.S. and P.P. constructed the experimental device with contributions from R.F. and A.-L.B. A.S., A.-L.B. and L.B. designed the fluidic system (with input from P.P.), performed measurements and conducted the experimental analysis. X.B. performed the ab initio simulations. L.B. wrote the manuscript with input from all authors.

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Correspondence to Lydéric Bocquet.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Text and Data, Supplementary Figures 1- 15, Supplementary Tables 1-2 and additional references (see Contents for more details). (PDF 6216 kb)

Water dissociation on BN surface

Ab initio simulations for a water molecule approaching to a BN sheet with a single hydrogen atom binded to a nitrogen atom. Water dissociation takes place when the water molecule comes close to the active site of the BN sheet: the oxygen of a water molecule binds to a Boron atom adjacent to the H-binded nitrogen, releasing an H atom. Boron, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen atoms are in pink, blue, red and white respectively. (MPG 252 kb)

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Siria, A., Poncharal, P., Biance, AL. et al. Giant osmotic energy conversion measured in a single transmembrane boron nitride nanotube. Nature 494, 455–458 (2013).

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