Left to right: Alex Schrader, Songi Han and Jacob Israelachvili from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Photo: Sonia Fernandez.
Left to right: Alex Schrader, Songi Han and Jacob Israelachvili from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Photo: Sonia Fernandez.

Better known as glass, silica is a versatile material used in myriad industrial processes, from catalysis and filtration, to chromatography and nanofabrication. Yet despite its ubiquity in labs and cleanrooms, surprisingly little is known about silica's surface interactions with water at a molecular level.

"The way water interacts with a surface affects many processes," said Songi Han, professor of chemistry at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and author of a recent paper on this interaction in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). In many cases, she explained, scientists and engineers intuit the potential interactions between silica and water, and then design equipment, experiments and processes based on empirical evidence. But a mechanistic understanding of how the chemical topology of silica surfaces alters the structure of water at the surface could allow these processes to be designed more rationally.

For many people, glass is glass, and brings to mind the clear, hard, smooth, homogenous-looking material used for windows or tableware. However, on a deeper level ‘glass’ is actually a more complex material that can possess a range of different chemical properties.

"Glass is a material we're all familiar with, but what many people probably don't know is that it is what we would call a chemically heterogenous surface," said graduate student researcher Alex Schrader, lead author of the PNAS paper.

Two different types of chemical groups comprise glass surfaces: silanol (SiOH) groups that are generally hydrophilic (water-loving) and siloxane (SiOHSi) groups that are typically hydrophobic (water-repellent). "What we show," Shrader said, "is that the way that you arrange these two types of chemistries on the surface greatly impacts how water interacts with the surface, which, in turn, impacts physical observable phenomena, like how water spreads on a glass."

In certain processes, such as catalysis, silica (or silicon dioxide) in the form of a whitish powder is used as a support, with the catalyst attached to the powder grains. While silica does not participate directly in the catalysis, the surface molecular composition of the silica grains, in terms of whether its predominantly hydrophilic or hydrophobic, can influence its effectiveness. The researchers found that if the silica tends to have hydrophilic silanol groups on its surface, it attracts water molecules, in effect forming a ‘soft barrier’ of water molecules that reactants need to penetrate to proceed with the desired process or reaction.

"There are always dynamics and the water molecules must exchange their positions, and so that's why it's complicated," said Jacob Israelachvili, a professor of chemical engineering at UCSB, who measured interaction forces between silica surfaces across water with a surface forces apparatus (SFA). "You have to break some bond in order for this other bond to form. And that can take time."

It's not just the mere presence of the silanol groups that can affect water adhesion to silica surfaces. The researchers were puzzled by a nonlinear drop in surface water diffusivity as the chemical composition of the silica surface moved from hydrophobic to hydrophilic. That mystery was subsequently solved by UCSB chemical engineering professor Scott Shell and his graduate student Jacob Monroe, whose computer simulations revealed that the relative arrangement of silanol and siloxane groups on the surface also influenced water adhesion.

"If you have the same fraction of water-liking groups and water-disliking groups, by just rearranging them spatially, you can vary water mobility significantly," Han said.

Catalyst-driven processes are not the only thing that can be improved with a molecular understanding of silica-water adhesion. Filtration and chromatography may also be improved.

"It's also important in cleanroom procedures, nanofabrication and microprocessor formation," said Schrader, who pointed out that microprocessors are fabricated on silicon wafer substrates with a thin layer of glass, upon which circuits are laid. "It's important to understand how the actual surface of the silicon wafer looks on a chemical level and how these different metal layers that they deposit on it stick to it and how they appear."

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