Mechanism Exploration of Ion Transport in Nanocomposite Cation Exchange Membranes

The origin of property enhancement of nanocomposite ion exchange membranes (IEMs) is far from being fully understood. By combining experimental work and computational modeling analysis, we could determine the influence of nanomaterials on the ion transport properties of nanocomposite cation exchange membranes (CEMs). We synthesized and characterized a series of nanocomposite CEMs by using SPPO as polymer materials and silica nanoparticles (NPs) (unsulfonated or sulfonated) as nanomaterials. We found that with the increase of NP loading, measured CEM permselectivity and swelling degree first increased and then decreased. We also found the ion exchange capacity (IEC) and ionic resistance of nanocomposite CEMs tend to be the same, regardless what type of NPs are incorporated into the membrane. Modeling analysis suggests that the change of membrane properties is related to the change in membrane microstructure. With the addition of silica NPs, membrane porosity (volume fraction of intergel phase) increases so that membranes can absorb more water. Also, volume fraction of sulfonated polymer segments increases, which can allow membranes to retain more counterions, causing membrane IEC to increase. By calculating the effective ion diffusion coefficients and membrane tortuosity factors of all the silica-NP-based CEMs synthesized in this study, along with nanocomposite CEMs from previous studies, we conclude that membrane ion transport efficiency tends to increase with the incorporation of nanomaterials. In addition, this paper presents a simulation model, which explains how the membrane property changes upon nanomaterial aggregation; the simulation results are in good agreement with the experimental data. Simulation results indicate that membrane properties are related to nanomaterial number concentration in the membrane matrices; thus, a plateau is reached for membrane ion diffusion coefficients due to the severe influence of aggregation on the increase of nanomaterial real number concentration. The results of this study can provide insight into membrane structure–property relation and contribute to the value of future designs of new nanocomposite IEMs.