Sieving hydrogen isotopes through two-dimensional crystals

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Science  01 Jan 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6268, pp. 68-70
DOI: 10.1126/science.aac9726

Separating H+ from D+

In many respects, hydrogen and deuterium show similar properties because they share the same number of protons and electrons and only differ by one neutron. However, when you strip away the electron, a proton ends up having less than half the radius of a deuterion. Lozada-Hidalgo et al. used two-dimensional membranes of graphene or hexagonal boron nitride to separate these two charged isotopes, with a separation factor of about 10.

Science, this issue p. 68


One-atom-thick crystals are impermeable to atoms and molecules, but hydrogen ions (thermal protons) penetrate through them. We show that monolayers of graphene and boron nitride can be used to separate hydrogen ion isotopes. Using electrical measurements and mass spectrometry, we found that deuterons permeate through these crystals much slower than protons, resulting in a separation factor of ≈10 at room temperature. The isotope effect is attributed to a difference of ≈60 milli–electron volts between zero-point energies of incident protons and deuterons, which translates into the equivalent difference in the activation barriers posed by two-dimensional crystals. In addition to providing insight into the proton transport mechanism, the demonstrated approach offers a competitive and scalable way for hydrogen isotope enrichment.

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