Principles governing control of aggregation and dispersion of aqueous graphene oxide

JL Suter and PV Coveney, SCIENTIFIC REPORTS, 11, 22460 (2021).

DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-01626-3

Controlling the structure of graphene oxide (GO) phases and their smaller analogues, graphene (oxide) quantum dots (GOODs), is vitally important for any of their widespread intended applications: highly ordered arrangements of nanoparticles for thin-film or membrane applications of GO, dispersed nanoparticles for composite materials and three-dimensional porous arrangements for hydrogels. In aqueous environments, it is not only the chemical composition of the GO flakes that determines their morphologies; external factors such as pH and the coexisting cations also influence the structures formed. By using accurate models of GO that capture the heterogeneity of surface oxidation and very large-scale coarse-grained molecular dynamics that can simulate the behaviour of GO at realistic sizes of GOODs, the driving forces that lead to the various morphologies in aqueous solution are resolved. We find the morphologies are determined by a complex interplay between electrostatic, pi-pi and hydrogen bonding interactions. Assembled morphologies can be controlled by changing the degree of oxidation and the pH. In acidic aqueous solution, the GO flakes vary from fully aggregated over graphitic domains to partial aggregation via hydrogen bonding between hydroxylated domains, leading to the formation of planar extended flakes at high oxidation ratios and stacks at low oxidation ratios. At high pH, where the edge carboxylic acid groups are deprotonated, electrostatic repulsion leads to more dispersion, but a variety of aggregation behaviour is surprisingly still observed: over graphitic regions, via hydrogen bonding and "face-edge" interactions. Calcium ions cause additional aggregation, with a greater number of "face-face" and "edge-edge" aggregation mechanisms, leading to irregular aggregated structures. "Face-face" aggregation mechanisms are enhanced by the GO flakes possessing distinct domains of hydroxylated and graphitic regions, with pi-pi and hydrogen bonding interactions prevalent between these regions on aggregated flakes respectively. These findings furnish explanations for the aggregation characteristics of GO and GOODs, and provide computational methods to design directed synthesis routes for self-assembled and associated applications.

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