Molecular insight into carboxylic acid–alkali metal cations interactions: reversed affinities and ion-pair formation revealed by non-linear optics and simulations
Specific interactions between the carboxylic acid moiety and the monovalent salts CsCl, NaCl, and LiCl, have been investigated in Langmuir monolayers using vibrational sum frequency spectroscopy (VSFS) and complemented with coarse grained and all-atom molecular dynamics simulations. By exploiting VSFS's intrinsic surface specificity, an emphasis was made on targeting headgroup vibrations of both its charged and uncharged forms as well as water molecules in the interfacial layer. The degree of deprotonation of the monolayer as a function of cation concentration and pH was experimentally determined and theoretically rationalized. Starting from 100 mM, the surface charge was overestimated by the Gouy–Chapman model and varied depending on the identity of the cation, highlighting the appearance of ion specific effects. Agreement could be found using a modified Poisson–Boltzmann model that takes into account steric effects, with a fitted effective ion-size compatible with the hydrated ion diameters. The relative affinity of the cations to the carboxylic acid moiety was pH dependent: at pH 4.5 they arranged in the order Cs+ > Na+ > Li+, but fully reversed (Li+ > Na+ > Cs+) at pH 9. Simulations yielded microscopic insight into the origin of this behavior, with the cations showing contrasting interaction preferences for either the uncharged carboxylic acid or the charged carboxylate. Sum frequency spectra also provided evidence that all cations remained hydrated when interacting with the charged headgroup, forming solvent-separated or solvent-shared ion pairs. However, for the specific case of 1 M Li+ at pH 9, contact ion pairs were formed. Finally, the remarkable effect of trace metal multivalent cations in the interpretation of experiments is briefly discussed. The results provide exciting new insights into the complex interactions of alkali metal cations with the biophysically relevant carboxylic acid moiety.