Published Research - Department of Chemistry


Date of this Version



PNAS, September 1, 2015, vol. 112, no. 35, pp. 10851–10856.


Copyright 2015. Used by permission.


Recently reported synthetic organic nanopore (SONP) can mimic a key feature of natural ion channels, i.e., selective ion transport. However, the physical mechanism underlying the K+/Na+ selectivity for the SONPs is dramatically different from that of natural ion channels. To achieve a better understanding of the selective ion transport in hydrophobic subnanometer channels in general and SONPs in particular, we perform a series of ab initio molecular dynamics simulations to investigate the diffusivity of aqua Na+ and K+ ions in two prototype hydrophobic nanochannels: (i) an SONP with radius of 3.2 Å, and (ii) single-walled carbon nanotubes (CNTs) with radii of 3–5 Å (these radii are comparable to those of the biological potassium K+ channels). We find that the hydration shell of aqua Na+ ion is smaller than that of aqua K+ ion but notably more structured and less yielding. The aqua ions do not lower the diffusivity of water molecules in CNTs, but in SONP the diffusivity of aqua ions (Na+ in particular) is strongly suppressed due to the rugged inner surface. Moreover, the aqua Na+ ion requires higher formation energy than aqua K+ ion in the hydrophobic nanochannels. As such, we find that the ion (K+ vs. Na+) selectivity of the (8, 8) CNT is approx. 20× higher than that of SONP. Hence, the (8, 8) CNT is likely the most efficient artificial K+ channel due in part to its special interior environment in which Na+ can be fully solvated, whereas K+ cannot. This work provides deeper insights into the physical chemistry behind selective ion transport in nanochannels.