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Structural Implications of Interfacial Hydrogen Bonding in Hydrated Wyoming-Montmorillonite Clay


Montmorillonite (MMT) clay - a layered porous nanomaterial used as seals in engineered waste containment barriers for spent nuclear fuel - adopts discrete hydration/swelling states depending upon surrounding water and ion activities and confining pressure. The structure of nanoconfined water and charge-balancing counterions in the clay mineral interlayers dictate the swelling and mechanical behavior of MMT, so a molecular model for this clay with high structural fidelity is required to accurately predict the reliability of long-term nuclear waste storage. Here, we present a molecular model for MMT that is based on high resolution transmission electron microscopy of Wyoming-MMT single crystals. Imaging data unambiguously show a cis-vacant arrangement of structural hydroxyl groups in the octahedral sheet, whereas existing molecular models assume a centrosymmetric trans-vacant configuration for MMT. Using atomistic simulations, we find that the cis-vacant arrangement of structural hydroxyl groups significantly affects the structure of adsorbed water yielding a larger population of hydrogen bonds with bridging oxygens on the tetrahedral sheet and weak hydrogen bonding between the hydroxyl groups in the octahedral sheet and water in the clay mineral interlayers. As a result, water adsorbed in the interlayer is more "ice-like", with stronger ordering and lower density, although the diffusivity of the interlayer species is not significantly diminished. Our improved structural model for MMT provides insight into the energetics of water adsorption, which ultimately dictates its pore- to macro-scale swelling, transport, and fracture properties.

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