Diffusion and precipitation processes in iron-based silica gardens
Silica gardens are tubular structures that form along the interface of multivalent metal salts and alkaline solutions of sodium silicate, driven by a complex interplay of osmotic and buoyant forces together with chemical reaction. They display peculiar plant-like morphologies and thus can be considered as one of the few examples for the spontaneous biomimetic self-ordering of purely inorganic materials. Recently, we could show that silica gardens moreover are highly dynamic systems that remain far from equilibrium for considerable periods of time long after macroscopic growth is completed. Due to initial compartmentalisation, drastic concentration gradients were found to exist across the tube walls, which give rise to noticeable electrochemical potential differences and decay only slowly in a series of coupled diffusion and precipitation processes. In the present work, we extend these studies and investigate the effect of the nature of the used metal cations on the dynamic behaviour of the system. To that end, we have grown single macroscopic silica garden tubes by controlled addition of sodium silicate sol to pellets of iron(II) and iron(III) chloride. In the following, the concentrations of ionic species were measured as a function of time on both sides of the formed membranes, while electrochemical potentials and pH were monitored online by immersing the corresponding sensors into the two separated solution reservoirs. At the end of the experiments, the solid tube material was furthermore characterised with respect to composition and microstructure by a combination of ex situ techniques. The collected data are compared to the previously reported case of cobalt-based silica gardens and used to shed light on ion diffusion through the inorganic membranes as well as progressive mineralisation at both surfaces of the tube walls. Our results reveal important differences in the dynamics of the three studied systems, which can be explained based on the acidity of the metal cations and the porosity of the membranes, leading to substantially dissimilar time-dependent solution chemistry as well as distinct final mineral structures. The insight gained in this work may help to better understand the diffusion properties and precipitation patterns in tubular iron (hydr)oxide/silicate structures observed in geological environments and during steel corrosion.