How large molecules cross narrow pore entrances

How can a snake swallow a mouse bigger than its mouth?

Weird as it seems, questions like this emerge very often at the molecular scale. For example, we can fill porous materials with molecules larger than the diameter of the pores: in this way, we may obtain devices for energy and health applications. What makes this useful process possible? Flexibility is the key: both the porous host (the “snake”) and the molecule (the “mouse”) must deform for the process to occur. But here, contrary to the mouse-snake case, cooperation between the two partners is needed.

We captured the passage of a bulky molecule through the very narrow opening of one of these pores. We did this by computer simulations, because it is very hard to get such information experimentally. To get an idea of what we found, you don’t even need to read the paper – and i’m not kidding. Just look at the movie below!

What we’ve seen first, is that the pore is slightly larger at its entrance. This surely helps the molecule to go in.

Second: contrary to the mouse, which would escape the snake as fast as it could, the molecule is indeed “magically” drawn to the pore entrance – by electrostatic forces.

“So what?” – you may say.

Keep in mind that the molecule is still larger than the pore opening. No kind of “fatal attraction” could do the trick, in a world of rigid bodies.

We’ve found that the molecule can pass through the opening and slip inside the pore only because it’s flexible, and its motion is “in tune” with the vibrations of the porous matrix. All this factors cope to make the entrance process more favorable than the exit process – that’s why the molecule gets finally swallowed by the pore, and remains trapped inside the material.

For me, it was very nice to see how bulky molecules manage to pass through narrow openings and travel inside a porous material. But finding out the reason why they stay inside was, probably, even more exciting:  because it explains how materials of this kind can form and remain stable. Which is exactly one of the things you may need, in the quest of  easier and smarter ways to produce better materials.

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Acknowledgments
 As we have to give credit where credit is due, i must confess that i borrowed the mouse-and-snake idea used in this post. But you’ll never know from whom. Me neither: (s)he was an anonymous referee of the paper. I am very grateful to this person: i can hardly imagine a nicest way to sketch our work.
Update: 
Many thanks, of course, also to ChemComm for the cover!
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disassembling molecular machines

To understand how a motor works you have to know how it is put together and how it can be disassembled. This is true at the molecular level as well. Amazingly complex molecular motors and machines are fabricated everyday,  but how do they break down into their constituent pieces? Attracted by this question, we modeled two such species – called ‘rotaxanes’ –  and made them break apart.
Typically, rotaxanes are made by two molecules: a ring-shaped one,  the “wheel”, and an approximately linear one, the “axle”. What is great about them, is that you can modify the interactions between the ring and the axle by using an external signal. Which means that you can control the movements of these components through light, for example.

anello
A ring (R)
axe_trans
An axle (EE)
axe_cis
Another axle (ZZ)

Using the three components shown above – one ring and two axles – you can build two different rotaxanes: R-EE, and R-ZZ.  Both disassemble – or ‘dethread’ – when the axle exits from the ring.  This process occurs differently for the two species: While the EE-one (video 1)  dethreads in one single step:

the dethreading of the ZZ-axle (video 2) passes through an intermediate and a transition state:

Analyzing the two simulations, we identified the interactions between the molecular components which control the process at the molecular level.  For example, we have seen that the elliptic shape of the ring opening is very important, as it can recognize the two different configurations of the terminal groups of the axles. This insight might help in the construction of light-powered molecular devices, of which these rotaxanes are important building blocks.

The results of this work are discussed in our paper (1), which is part of the ChemPhysChem special issue on molecular machines.  You may get a nice picture of the field by taking a look at this issue. Its contributions well illustrate the concept that molecular machines -especially natural ones – are incredibly complex and fascinating systems, and we are just beginning to understand their inner workings.

(1)G. Tabacchi, S. Silvi, M. Venturi, A. Credi, E. Fois, ChemPhysChem 2016, 17, 1913 http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/cphc.201501160

A brief summary of the article (with links to additional resources) may be found here.