When Ions and Molecules Cluster

The Science

The electric charge of atoms or molecules hinders the ability to predict how multiple ions will act when combined. Different ions with the same charge cause different effects. How an ion behaves when isolated within an analytical instrument can differ from how it behaves in the environment. Now, Xue-Bin Wang at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory devised a way to bring ions and molecules together in clusters to better discover their properties and predict their behavior.

The Impact

The approach offers details about how ions act. The new data could help answer tough questions about everything from human health to energy storage. Ions play vital roles in material synthesis, corrosion, battery design, environmental processes, and more.


When it comes to chemistry, it’s all about the edges. Forcing two substances, such as water and salt, to interface effectively for a given purpose can be surprisingly complex. Scientists and engineers must be able to reliably predict how electrically charged ions will respond when atoms come together, whether in natural or human-made systems. Ionic clusters represent a potential way to understand larger-scale systems because the clusters offer model systems to mimic chemical and physical processes in bulk and at interfaces. The approach to study ion clusters uses a simple solution of known chemicals and applies a high voltage to create a charged microdroplet that keeps similar molecules together, allowing the molecules to be captured and cooled in an ion trap. Studying clusters lets scientists discover ion properties and better predict how ions will behave. Ion research has implications for answering tough questions about the natural environment, bio-inspired sustainable energy, and material synthesis.


The Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences, Chemical Sciences, Geosciences, and Biosciences Division supported this work. The experiments were conducted at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, sponsored by DOE’s Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research and located at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

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