Chang Liu working in Qian Chen’s liquid-phase transmission electron microscopy laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Photo: Fred Zwicky.
Chang Liu working in Qian Chen’s liquid-phase transmission electron microscopy laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Photo: Fred Zwicky.

For the first time, researchers have observed the process of nanoparticles self-assembling and crystalizing into solid materials. In new videos produced by the team, nanoparticles can be seen raining down, tumbling along steps and sliding around before finally snapping into place to form a crystal’s signature stacked layers.

Led by Qian Chen at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Erik Lutijen at Northwestern University, the study used liquid-phase transmission electron microscopy (TEM) and computational modeling to gain an unprecedented view of the self-assembly process at nanometer resolution. The researchers said these new insights could be used to design new materials, including thin films for electronic applications. They report their findings in a paper in Nature Nanotechnology.

Before this work, researchers had used microscopy to watch micron-sized colloidal particles – 10 to 100 times larger than nanoparticles – self-assemble into crystals. There are also extensive theories on the atomic, molecular or ionic building blocks of crystals, which are 10 to 100 times smaller than nanoparticles. However, a knowledge gap existed at the intermediate nanoscale.

Recent advances in liquid-phase TEM have now made it possible to view nanoparticles in real time as they form solid materials. Chen’s team spent years optimizing this process to ensure the electron beam could view the nanoparticles without damaging them.

“Previously, our team resolved the mystery of nucleation, namely how the embryos of crystals composed of tens of nanoparticles are formed,” said Chen, a materials science and engineering professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who led the experimental work. “With advances in liquid-phase TEM and data science, in this work, we can now capture and track motions of thousands of nanoparticles over time.”

In the new study, researchers used differently shaped nanoparticles – cubes, spheres and indented cubes – to explore how shape affects behavior.

“We know that atoms use a similar scheme to assemble into crystals, but we have never seen the actual growth process,” said Luijten, a materials science and engineering professor at Northwestern University who led the theoretical and computational portion of the study. “Now we see it coming together, right in front of our eyes. By viewing nanoparticles, we watch particles larger than atoms but smaller than colloids. So, we have completed the whole spectrum of length scales. We are filling in the missing length.”

In experiments, Illinois graduate students Binbin Luo, Chang Liu, Ahyoung Kim and Zihao Ou were able to observe the nanoparticles colliding and sticking together to form layers. The nanoparticles formed a horizontal layer and then stacked vertically to form the layer-by-layer crystalline structure. Sometimes, after sticking to each other, the nanoparticles briefly detached to fall onto a layer below. The researchers further visualized crystal formation with advanced computer simulations, verifying the universal trend of distinctive assembly structures from different-sized particles.

“The differently shaped nanoparticles we used wiggle around and communicate differently with each other while in fluids,” said Luo, a former Illinois graduate student, first author of the paper and currently with Dow Chemical Company. “We sampled their growth behaviors from hundreds of liquid-phase TEM movies to glean a unified understanding for the first time.”

“The movies have a huge amount of information embedded,” said Ou, a former Illinois graduate student who is currently at Stanford University. “We taught our computers to extract the position, shape and the networks they assemble into over time automatically, allowing us to translate the movies to quantifiable physical parameters.”

Kim, a former Illinois graduate student and currently at the University of California, Berkeley, said one unique advantage of nanoparticles is that their shapes and surface chemistry can be easily changed by synthesis. “We studied cubes, spheres and indented cubes; they diffuse differently as they chase after each other, leading to different final shapes of the crystals,” added Liu, a graduate student in the Chen group.

According to Luijten, this information will help engineers design new materials, such as the thin-film materials often used to build flexible electronics, light-emitting diodes, transistors and solar cells.

“Knowing how particles come together will enable us to control the shape of a surface,” Luijten said. “Do you want a flat or rough surface? Changing particle shape or how fast the particles fall can affect the surface.”

This story is adapted from material from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.