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Understanding the pH-dependent behavior of graphene oxide (GO) aqueous solutions is important to the production of assembled GO or reduced GO films for electronic, optical, and biological applications. We have carried out a comparative experimental and molecular dynamics (MD) simulation study to uncover the mechanisms behind the aggregation and the surface activity of GO at different pH values. At low pH, the carboxyl groups are protonated such that the GO sheets become less hydrophilic and form aggregates. MD simulations further suggest that the aggregates exhibit a GO-water-GO sandwich like structure and as a result are stable in water instead of precipitating. However, at high pH, the deprotonated carboxyl groups are very hydrophilic such that individual GO sheets prefer to dissolve in bulk water like a regular salt. The GO aggregates formed at low pH are found to be surface-active and do not exhibit characteristic features of surfactant micelles. Our findings suggest that GO does not behave like conventional surfactants in pH 1 and 14 aqueous solutions. The molecular-level understanding of the solution behavior of GO presented here can facilitate and improve the experimental techniques used to synthesize and sort large, uniform GO dispersions in a solution phase.
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