In nanotechnology, a particle is defined as a small object that behaves as a whole unit in terms of its transport and properties.
Particles are further classified according to size: in terms of diameter, coarse particles cover a range between 10,000 and 2,500 nanometers. Fine particles are sized between 2,500 and 100 nanometers. Ultrafine particles, or nanoparticles are sized between 100 and 1 nanometers.
Nanoparticles may or may not exhibit size-related properties that differ significantly from those observed in fine particles or bulk materials. Although the size of most molecules would fit into the above outline, individual molecules are usually not referred to as nanoparticles.
- Nanoclusters have at least one dimension between 1 and 10 nanometers and a narrow size distribution.
- Nanopowders are agglomerates of ultrafine particles, nanoparticles, or nanoclusters.
- Nanometer-sized single crystals, or single-domain ultrafine particles, are often referred to as nanocrystals.
Nanoparticle research is currently an area of intense scientific interest due to a wide variety of potential applications in biomedical, optical and electronic fields.
History of Nanoparticles
Although nanoparticles are generally considered a discovery of modern science, they actually have a very long history. Nanoparticles were used by artisans as far back as the 9th century in Mesopotamia for generating a glittering effect on the surface of pots.
Even these days, pottery from the middle Ages and Renaissance often retains a distinct gold or copper colored metallic glitter. This so called luster is caused by a metallic film that was applied to the transparent surface of a glazing. The luster can still be visible if the film has resisted atmospheric oxidation and other weathering.
Michael Faraday provided the first description, in scientific terms, of the optical properties of nanometer-scale metals in his classic 1857 paper. In a subsequent paper, the author (Turner) points out that:
“It is well known that when thin leaves of gold or silver are mounted upon glass and heated to a temperature which is well below a red heat (~500 °C), a remarkable change of properties takes place, whereby the continuity of the metallic film is destroyed. The result is that white light is now freely transmitted, reflection is correspondingly diminished, while the electrical resistivity is enormously increased.”
Uniformity of Nanoparticles
The chemical processing and synthesis of high performance technological components for the private, industrial, and military sectors requires the use of high purity ceramics, polymers, glass-ceramics and material composites. In condensed bodies formed from fine powders, the irregular particle sizes and shapes in a typical powder often lead to non-uniform packing morphologies that result in packing density variations in the powder compact.
Uncontrolled agglomeration of powders due to attractive van der Waals forces can also give rise to in microstructural inhomogeneities. Differential stresses that develop as a result of non-uniform drying shrinkage are directly related to the rate at which the solvent can be removed, and thus highly dependent upon the distribution of porosity. Such stresses have been associated with a plastic-to-brittle transition in consolidated bodies, and can yield to crack propagation in the unfired body if not relieved.
Properties of Nanoparticles
Nanoparticles are of great scientific interest as they are effectively a bridge between bulk materials and atomic or molecular structures. A bulk material should have constant physical properties regardless of its size, but at the nano-scale size-dependent properties are often observed. Thus, the properties of materials change as their size approaches the nanoscale and as the percentage of atoms at the surface of a material becomes significant. For bulk materials larger than one micrometer, the percentage of atoms at the surface is insignificant in relation to the number of atoms in the bulk of the material. The interesting and sometimes unexpected properties of nanoparticles are therefore largely due to the large surface area of the material, which dominates the contributions made by the small bulk of the material.
Nanoparticles often possess unexpected optical properties as they are small enough to confine their electrons and produce quantum effects. For example gold nanoparticles appear deep red to black in solution. Nanoparticles of usually yellow gold and gray silicon are red in color.
Other size-dependent property changes include quantum confinement in semiconductor particles, surface plasmon resonance in some metal particles and superparamagnetism in magnetic materials. Ironically, the changes in physical properties are not always desirable.
Suspensions of nanoparticles are possible since the interaction of the particle surface with the solvent is strong enough to overcome density differences, which otherwise usually result in a material either sinking or floating in a liquid.
The high surface area to volume ratio of nanoparticles provides a tremendous driving force for diffusion, especially at elevated temperatures. Sintering can take place at lower temperatures, over shorter time scales than for larger particles. This theoretically does not affect the density of the final product, though flow difficulties and the tendency of nanoparticles to agglomerate complicates matters. Moreover, nanoparticles have been found to impart some extra properties to various day to day products. For example the presence of titanium dioxide nanoparticles imparts what we call the self-cleaning effect, and the size being nano-range, the particles cannot be observed. Zinc oxide particles have been found to have superior UV blocking properties compared to its bulk substitute. This is one of the reasons why it is often used in the preparation of sunscreen lotions, and is completely photostable.
Clay nanoparticles when incorporated into polymer matrices increase reinforcement, leading to stronger plastics, verifiable by a higher glass transition temperature and other mechanical property tests. These nanoparticles are hard, and impart their properties to the polymer (plastic). Nanoparticles have also been attached to textile fibers in order to create smart and functional clothing.
Metal, dielectric, and semiconductor nanoparticles have been formed, as well as hybrid structures (e.g., core-shell nanoparticles). Nanoparticles made of semiconducting material may also be labeled quantum dots if they are small enough (typically sub 10 nm) that quantization of electronic energy levels occurs. Such nanoscale particles are used in biomedical applications as drug carriers or imaging agents.
Semi-solid and soft nanoparticles have been manufactured. A prototype nanoparticle of semi-solid nature is the liposome. Various types of liposome nanoparticles are currently used clinically as delivery systems for anticancer drugs and vaccines.
Nanoparticles with one half hydrophilic and the other half hydrophobic are termed Janus particles and are particularly effective for stabilizing emulsions. They can self-assemble at water/oil interfaces and act as solid surfactants.
Synthesis of Nanoparticles
There are several methods for creating nanoparticles, including both attrition and pyrolysis. In attrition, macro or micro scale particles are ground in a ball mill, a planetary ball mill, or other size reducing mechanism. The resulting particles are air classified to recover nanoparticles. In pyrolysis, a vaporous precursor (liquid or gas) is forced through an orifice at high pressure and burned. The resulting solid (a version of soot) is air classified to recover oxide particles from by-product gases. Pyrolysis often results in aggregates and agglomerates rather than single primary particles.
Thermal plasma can also deliver the energy necessary to cause evaporation of small micrometer size particles. The thermal plasma temperatures are in the order of 10,000 K, so that solid powder easily evaporates. Nanoparticles are formed upon cooling while exiting the plasma region. The main types of the thermal plasma torches used to produce nanoparticles are dc plasma jet, dc arc plasma and radio frequency (RF) induction plasmas. In the arc plasma reactors, the energy necessary for evaporation and reaction is provided by an electric arc which is formed between the anode and the cathode. For example, silica sand can be vaporized with an arc plasma at atmospheric pressure. The resulting mixture of plasma gas and silica vapour can be rapidly cooled by quenching with oxygen, thus ensuring the quality of the fumed silica produced.
In RF induction plasma torches, energy coupling to the plasma is accomplished through the electromagnetic field generated by the induction coil. The plasma gas does not come in contact with electrodes, thus eliminating possible sources of contamination and allowing the operation of such plasma torches with a wide range of gases including inert, reducing, oxidizing and other corrosive atmospheres. The working frequency is typically between 200 kHz and 40 MHz. Laboratory units run at power levels in the order of 30–50 kW while the large scale industrial units have been tested at power levels up to 1 MW. As the residence time of the injected feed droplets in the plasma is very short it is important that the droplet sizes are small enough in order to obtain complete evaporation. The RF plasma method has been used to synthesize different nanoparticle materials, for example synthesis of various ceramic nanoparticles such as oxides, carbours/carbides and nitrides of Ti and Si.
Inert-gas condensation is frequently used to make nanoparticles from metals with low melting points. The metal is vaporized in a vacuum chamber and then supercooled with an inert gas stream. The supercooled metal vapor condenses into nanometer-sized particles, which can be entrained in the inert gas stream and deposited on a substrate or studied in situ.
Nanoparticles can also be formed using radiation chemistry. Radiolysis from gamma rays can create strongly active free radicals in solution. This relatively simple technique uses a minimum number of chemicals. These including water, a soluble metallic salt, a radical scavenger (often a secondary alcohol), and a surfactant (organic capping agent). High gamma doses on the order of 104 Gray are required. In this process, reducing radicals will drop metallic ions down to the zero-valence state. A scavenger chemical will preferentially interact with oxidizing radicals to prevent the re-oxidation of the metal. Once in the zero-valence state, metal atoms begin to coalesce into particles. A chemical surfactant surrounds the particle during formation and regulates its growth. In sufficient concentrations, the surfactant molecules stay attached to the particle. This prevents it from dissociating or forming clusters with other particles. Formation of nanoparticles using the radiolysis method allows for tailoring of particle size and shape by adjusting precursor concentrations and gamma dose.
Sol gel Method
The sol-gel process is a wet-chemical technique (also known as chemical solution deposition) widely used recently in the fields of materials science and ceramic engineering. Such methods are used primarily for the fabrication of materials (typically a metal oxide) starting from a chemical solution (sol, short for solution) which acts as the precursor for an integrated network (or gel) of either discrete particles or network polymers.
Typical precursors are metal alkoxides and metal chlorides, which undergo hydrolysis and polycondensation reactions to form either a network “elastic solid” or a colloidal suspension (or dispersion) – a system composed of discrete (often amorphous) submicrometer particles dispersed to various degrees in a host fluid. Formation of a metal oxide involves connecting the metal centers with oxo (M-O-M) or hydroxo (M-OH-M) bridges, therefore generating metal-oxo or metal-hydroxo polymers in solution. Thus, the sol evolves towards the formation of a gel-like diphasic system containing both a liquid phase and solid phase whose morphologies range from discrete particles to continuous polymer networks.
In the case of the colloid, the volume fraction of particles (or particle density) may be so low that a significant amount of fluid may need to be removed initially for the gel-like properties to be recognized. This can be accomplished in any number of ways. The most simple method is to allow time for sedimentation to occur, and then pour off the remaining liquid. Centrifugation can also be used to accelerate the process of phase separation.
Removal of the remaining liquid (solvent) phase requires a drying process, which is typically accompanied by a significant amount of shrinkage and densification. The rate at which the solvent can be removed is ultimately determined by the distribution of porosity in the gel. The ultimate microstructure of the final component will clearly be strongly influenced by changes implemented during this phase of processing. Afterwards, a thermal treatment, or firing process, is often necessary in order to favour further polycondensation and enhance mechanical properties and structural stability via final sintering, densification and grain growth. One of the distinct advantages of using this methodology as opposed to the more traditional processing techniques is that densification is often achieved at a much lower temperature.
The precursor sol can be either deposited on a substrate to form a film (e.g. by dip-coating or spin-coating), cast into a suitable container with the desired shape (e.g. to obtain a monolithic ceramics, glasses, fibers, membranes, aerogels), or used to synthesize powders (e.g. microspheres, nanospheres). The sol-gel approach is a cheap and low-temperature technique that allows for the fine control of the product’s chemical composition. Even small quantities of dopants, such as organic dyes and rare earth metals, can be introduced in the sol and end up uniformly dispersed in the final product. It can be used in ceramics processing and manufacturing as an investment casting material, or as a means of producing very thin films of metal oxides for various purposes. Sol-gel derived materials have diverse applications in optics, electronics, energy, space, (bio) sensors, medicine (e.g. controlled drug release) and separation (e.g. chromatography) technology.
Characterization of Nanoparticles
Nanoparticle characterization is necessary to establish understanding and control of nanoparticle synthesis and applications. Characterization is done by using a variety of different techniques, mainly drawn from materials science. Common techniques are electron microscopy (TEM, SEM), atomic force microscopy (AFM), dynamic light scattering (DLS), x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS), powder X-ray diffraction (XRD), Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometry (MALDI-TOF), ultraviolet-visible spectroscopy, dual polarisation interferometry and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR).
Whilst the theory has been known for over a century, the technology for Nanoparticle tracking analysis (NTA) allows direct tracking of the Brownian motion and this method therefore allows the sizing of individual nanoparticles in solution.
Nanoparticles present possible dangers, both medically and environmentally. Most of these are due to the high surface to volume ratio, which can make the particles very reactive or catalytic. They are also able to pass through cell membranes in organisms, and their interactions with biological systems are relatively unknown. A recent study looking at the effects of ZnO nanoparticles on human immune cells has found varying levels of susceptibility to cytotoxicity.
Whether cosmetics and sunscreens containing nanomaterials pose health risks remains largely unknown at this stage. However considerable research has demonstrated that zinc nanoparticles are not absorbed into the bloodstream in vivo. Diesel nanoparticles have been found to damage the cardiovascular system in a mouse model.
Concern has also been raised over the health effects of respirable nanoparticles from certain combustion processes.