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Posted: Oct 26, 2011
Improved characterization of nanoparticle clusters for EHS and biosensors research
(Nanowerk News) The tendency of nanoparticles to clump together in solution—"agglomeration"—is of great interest because the size of the clusters plays an important role in the behavior of the materials. Toxicity, the persistence of the nanomaterials in the environment, their efficacy as biosensors and, for that matter, the accuracy of experiments to measure these factors, are all known to be affected by agglomeration and cluster size.
Clusters of roughly 30-nanometer gold nanoparticles imaged by transmission electron microscopy. (Color added for clarity.) (Image: Keene, FDA)
A good example of the potential application of the work, says NIST biomedical engineer Justin Zook, is in the development of nanoparticle biosensors for ultrasensitive pregnancy tests. Gold nanoparticles can be coated with antibodies to a hormone (HCG: Human chorionic gonadotropin) produced by an embryo shortly after conception. Multiple gold nanoparticles can bind to each hormone, forming clusters that have a different color from unclustered gold nanoparticles. But only certain size clusters are optimal for this measurement, so knowing how light absorbance changes with cluster size makes it easier to design the biosensors to result in just the right sized clusters.
They then used a technique called analytical ultracentrifugation (AUC) to simultaneously sort the clusters by size and measure their light absorption. The centrifuge causes the nanoparticle clusters to separate by size, the smaller, lighter clusters moving more slowly than the larger ones. While this is happening, the sample containers are repeatedly scanned with light and the amount of light passing through the sample for each color or frequency is recorded. The larger the cluster, the more light is absorbed by lower frequencies. Measuring the absorption by frequency across the sample containers allows the researchers both to watch the gradual separation of cluster sizes and to correlate absorbed frequencies with specific cluster sizes.
Most previous measurements of absorption spectra for solutions of nanoparticles were able only to measure the bulk spectra—the absorption of all the different cluster sizes mixed together. AUC makes it possible to measure the quantity and distribution of each nanoparticle cluster without being confounded by other components in complex biological mixtures, such as proteins. The technique previously had been used only to make these measurements for single nanoparticles in solution. The NIST researchers are the first to show that the procedure also works for nanoparticle clusters.