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Mapping the Functional Tortuosity and Spatiotemporal Heterogeneity of Porous Polymer Membranes with Super-Resolution Nanoparticle Tracking

Cai, Yu, Schwartz, Daniel K.
ACS applied materials & interfaces 2017 v.9 no.49 pp. 43258-43266
filtration, mass transfer, nanoparticles, particle size, polymers, porous media
As particles flow through porous media, they follow complex pathways and experience heterogeneous environments that are challenging to characterize. Tortuosity is often used as a parameter to characterize the complexity of pathways in porous materials and is useful in understanding hindered mass transport in industrial filtration and mass separation processes. However, conventional calculations of tortuosity provide only average values under static conditions; they are insensitive to the intrinsic heterogeneity of porous media and do not account for potential effects of operating conditions. Here, we employ a high-throughput nanoparticle tracking method which enables the observation of actual particle trajectories in polymer membranes under relevant operating conditions. Our results indicate that tortuosity is not simply a structural material property but is instead a functional property that depends on flow rate and particle size. We also resolved the spatiotemporal heterogeneity of flowing particles in these porous media. The distributions of tortuosity and of local residence/retention times were surprisingly broad, exhibiting heavy tails representing a population of highly tortuous trajectories and local regions with anomalously long residence times. Interestingly, local tortuosity and residence times were directly correlated, suggesting the presence of highly confining regions that cause more meandering trajectories and longer retention times. The comprehensive information about tortuosity and spatiotemporal heterogeneity provided by these methods will advance the understanding of complex mass transport and assist rational design and synthesis of porous materials.