Ion channels play a key role in regulating cell behavior and in electrical signaling. In these settings, polar and charged functional groups, as well as protein response, compensate for dehydration in an ion-dependent way, giving rise to the ion selective transport critical to the operation of cells. Dehydration, though, yields ion-dependent free-energy barriers and thus is predicted to give rise to selectivity by itself. However, these barriers are typically so large that they will suppress the ion currents to undetectable levels. Here, we establish that graphene displays a measurable dehydration-only mechanism for selectivity of K+ over Cl-. This fundamental mechanism, one that depends only on the geometry and hydration, is the starting point for selectivity for all channels and pores. Moreover, while we study selectivity of K+ over Cl- we find that dehydration-based selectivity functions for all ions, that is, cation over cation selectivity (e.g., K+ over Na+). Its likely detection in graphene pores resolves conflicting experimental results, as well as presents a new paradigm for characterizing the operation of ion channels and engineering molecular/ionic selectivity in filtration and other applications.
Keywords: Ion transport; dehydration; desalination; filtration; graphene nanopore; selectivity.