The mobility of radiocesium in the environment is largely mediated by cation exchange in micaceous clays, in particular Illite - a non-swelling clay mineral that naturally contains interlayer K+ and has high affinity for Cs+. Although exchange of interlayer K+ for Cs+ is nearly thermodynamically nonselective, recent experiments show that direct, anhydrous Cs+-K+ exchange is kinetically viable and leads to the formation of phase-separated interlayers through a mechanism that remains unclear. Here, using classical atomistic simulations and density functional theory calculations, we identify a molecular-scale positive feedback mechanism in which exchange of the larger Cs+ for the smaller K+ significantly lowers the migration barrier of neighboring K+, allowing exchange to propagate rapidly once initiated at the clay edge. Barrier lowering upon slight increase in layer spacing (∼0.7 Å) during Cs+ exchange is an example of "chemical-mechanical coupling" that likely explains the observed sharp exchange fronts leading to interstratification. Interestingly, we find that these features are thermodynamically favored even in the absence of a heterogeneous layer charge distribution.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Environmental Chemistry