Hypothesis: Multistage silicate self-organization into light-weight, high-strength, hierarchically patterned diatom frustules carries hints for innovative silica-based nanomaterials. With sodium silicate in a biomimetic sol-gel system templated by a tri-surfactant system of hexadecyltrimethylammonium bromide, sodium dodecylsulfate, and poly(oxyethylene-b-oxypropylene-b-oxyethylene) (P123), mesoporous silica nanochannel plates with perpendicular channel orientation are synthesized. The formation process, analogous to that of diatom frustules, is postulated to be directed by an oriented self-assembly of the block copolymer micelles shelled with charged catanionic surfactants upon silication. Experiments: The postulated formation process for the oriented silica nanochannel plates was investigated using time-resolved small-angle X-ray and neutron scattering (SAXS/SANS) and freeze fracture replication transmission electron microscopy (FFR-TEM). Findings: With fine-tuned molar ratios of the anionic, cationic, and nonionic surfactants, the catanionic combination and the nonionic copolymer form charged, prolate ternary micelles in aqueous solutions, which further develop into prototype monolayered micellar plates. The prolate shape and maximized surfactant adsorption of the complex micelles, revealed from combined SAXS/SANS analysis, are of critical importance in the subsequent micellar self-assembly upon silicate deposition. Time-resolved SAXS and FFR-TEM indicate that the silicate complex micelles coalesce laterally into the prototype micellar nanoplates, which further fuse with one another into large sheets of monolayered silicate micelles of in-plane lamellar packing. Upon silica polymerization, the in-plane lamellar packing of the micelles further transforms to 2D hexagonal packing of vertically oriented silicate channels. The unveiled structural features and their evolution not only elucidate the previously unresolved self-assembly process of through-thickness silica nanochannels but also open a new line of research mimicking free-standing frustules of diatoms.
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