A rendering of how the new research unlocks the mystery of molecular movement in nano-confined spaces. Image: Titouan Veuillet/EPFL.
A rendering of how the new research unlocks the mystery of molecular movement in nano-confined spaces. Image: Titouan Veuillet/EPFL.

A discovery in the field of nanofluidics could shake up our understanding of molecular behavior on the tiniest scales. Research teams at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland and the University of Manchester in the UK have revealed a previously hidden world by taking advantage of the newly found fluorescent properties of a graphene-like 2D material called hexagonal boron nitride (hBN).

This innovative approach will allow scientists to track individual molecules within nanofluidic structures, illuminating their behavior in ways never before possible. The researchers report their work in a paper in Nature Materials.

Nanofluidics, the study of fluids confined within ultra-small spaces, offers insights into the behavior of liquids at nanometer scales. However, exploring the movement of individual molecules in such confined environments has proved challenging due to the limitations of conventional microscopy techniques. This obstacle has prevented real-time sensing and imaging, leaving significant gaps in our knowledge of molecular properties in confinement.

Thanks to an unexpected property of hBN, EPFL's researchers have now achieved what was once thought impossible. This 2D material possesses a remarkable ability to emit light when in contact with liquids. By leveraging this property, scientists at EPFL's Laboratory of Nanoscale Biology (LBEN) have succeeded in directly observing and tracing the paths of individual molecules within nanofluidic structures. This revelation opens the door to a deeper understanding of the behaviors of ions and molecules in conditions that mimic biological systems.

“Advancements in fabrication and material science have empowered us to control fluidic and ionic transport on the nanoscale,” said Aleksandra Radenovic, head of LBEN. “Yet, our understanding of nanofluidic systems remained limited, as conventional light microscopy couldn't penetrate structures below the diffraction limit. Our research now shines a light on nanofluidics, offering insights into a realm that was largely uncharted until now.”

This newfound understanding of molecular properties has exciting applications, including the potential to directly image emerging nanofluidic systems, where liquids exhibit unconventional behaviors under pressure or voltage stimuli. The core of this research lies in the fluorescence originating from single-photon emitters on the surface of hBN.

“This fluorescence activation came unexpectedly, as neither hBN nor the liquid exhibit visible-range fluorescence on their own,” says doctoral student Nathan Ronceray from LBEN. “It most likely arises from molecules interacting with surface defects on the crystal, but we are still not certain of the exact mechanism.”

One type of surface defect is missing atoms in the crystalline structure. These defects can alter the properties of the material, conferring the ability to emit light when they interact with certain molecules. The researchers further observed that when a defect turns off, one of its neighbors lights up, because the molecule bound to the first site hopped to the second. Step by step, this can be used to reconstruct entire molecular trajectories.

Using a combination of different microscopy techniques, the team monitored color changes and demonstrated that these light-emitters release photons one at a time, offering pinpoint information about their immediate surroundings within around 1nm. These emitters can thus act as nanoscale probes, shedding light on the arrangement of molecules within confined nanometer spaces.

Radha Boya, a professor in Manchester’s Department of Physics, and his group crafted nanochannels from two-dimensional materials, confining liquids at mere nanometers from the hBN surface. This allowed for optical probing of these systems, uncovering hints of liquid ordering induced by confinement.

“Seeing is believing, but it is not easy to see confinement effects at this scale,” said Boya. “We make these extremely thin slit-like channels, and the current study shows an elegant way to visualize them by super-resolution microscopy.”

The potential of this discovery is far-reaching. Ronceray envisions applications beyond passive sensing: “We have primarily been watching the behavior of molecules with hBN without actively interacting with, but we think it could be used to visualize nanoscale flows caused by pressure or electric fields." This could lead to more dynamic applications in the future for optical imaging and sensing, providing unprecedented insights into the intricate behaviors of molecules within these confined spaces.

This story is adapted from material from EPFL, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.