Gas Phase Synthesis and Sol-Gel Processing

Major efforts in nanoparticle synthesis can be grouped into two broad areas: gas phase synthesis and sol-gel processing. Nanoparticles with diameters ranging from 1 to 10 nm with consistent crystal structure, surface derivatization, and a high degree of monodispersity have been processed by both gas-phase and sol-gel techniques. Typical size variances are about 20%; however, for measurable enhancement of the quantum effect, this must be reduced to less than 5% (Murray et al. 1993).

Initial development of new crystalline materials was based on nanoparticles generated by evaporation and condensation (nucleation and growth) in a subatmospheric inert-gas environment (Gleiter 1989; Siegel 1991, 1994). Various aerosol processing techniques have been reported to improve the production yield of nanoparticles (Uyeda 1991, Friedlander 1998). These include synthesis by combustion flame (Zachariah 1994, Calcote and Keil 1997, Axelbaum 1997, Pratsinis 1997); plasma (Rao et al. 1997); laser ablation (Becker et al. 1997); chemical vapor condensation (Kear et al. 1997); spray pyrolysis (Messing et al. 1994); electrospray (de la Mora et al. 1994); and plasma spray (Berndt et al. 1997).

Sol-gel processing is a wet chemical synthesis approach that can be used to generate nanoparticles by gelation, precipitation, and hydrothermal treatment (Kung and Ko 1996). Size distribution of semiconductor, metal, and metal oxide nanoparticles can be manipulated by either dopant introduction (Kyprianidou-Leodidou et al. 1994) or heat treatment (Wang et al. 1997). Better size and stability control of quantum-confined semiconductor nanoparticles can be achieved through the use of inverted micelles (Gacoin 1997), polymer matrix architecture based on block copolymers (Sankaran et al. 1993) or polymer blends (Yuan et al. 1992), porous glasses (Justus et al. 1992), and ex-situ particle-capping techniques (Majetich and Canter 1993; Olshavsky and Allcock 1997).

Other Strategies

Additional nanoparticle synthesis techniques include sonochemical processing, cavitation processing, microemulsion processing, and high-energy ball milling. In sonochemistry, an acoustic cavitation process can generate a transient localized hot zone with extremely high temperature gradient and pressure (Suslick et al. 1996). Such sudden changes in temperature and pressure assist the destruction of the sonochemical precursor (e.g., organometallic solution) and the formation of nanoparticles. The technique can be used to produce a large volume of material for industrial applications.

In hydrodynamic cavitation, nanoparticles are generated through creation and release of gas bubbles inside the sol-gel solution (Sunstrom et al. 1996). By rapidly pressurizing in a supercritical drying chamber and exposing to cavitational disturbance and high temperature heating, the sol-gel solution is mixed. The erupted hydrodynamic bubbles are responsible for nucleation, growth, and quenching of the nanoparticles. Particle size can be controlled by adjusting the pressure and the solution retention time in the cavitation chamber.

Microemulsions have been used for synthesis of metallic (Kishida et al. 1995), semiconductor (Kortan et al. 1990; Pileni et al. 1992), silica (Arriagada and Osseo-Assave 1995), barium sulfate (Hopwood and Mann 1997), magnetic, and superconductor (Pillai et al. 1995) nanoparticles. By controlling the very low interfacial tension (~10-3 mN/m) through the addition of a cosurfactant (e.g., an alcohol of intermediate chain length), these microemulsions are produced spontaneously without the need for significant mechanical agitation. The technique is useful for large-scale production of nanoparticles using relatively simple and inexpensive hardware (Higgins 1997).

Finally, high energy ball milling, the only top-down approach for nanoparticle synthesis, has been used for the generation of magnetic (Leslie-Pelecky and Reike 1996), catalytic (Ying and Sun 1997), and structural (Koch 1989) nanoparticles. The technique, which is already a commercial technology, has been considered dirty because of contamination problems from ball-milling processes. However, the availability of tungsten carbide components and the use of inert atmosphere and/or high vacuum processes have reduced impurities to acceptable levels for many industrial applications. Common drawbacks include the low surface area, the highly polydisperse size distributions, and the partially amorphous state of the as-prepared powders.

Other Synthesis Issues

Means to Achieve Monodispersity

One of the most challenging problems in synthesis is the controlled generation of monodispersed nanoparticles with size variance so small that size selection by centrifugal precipitation or mobility classification is not necessary. Among all the synthesis techniques discussed above, gas-phase synthesis is one of the best techniques with respect to size monodispersity, typically achieved by using a combination of rigorous control of nucleation-condensation growth and avoidance of coagulation by diffusion and turbulence as well as by the effective collection of nanoparticles and their handling afterwards. The stability of the collected nanoparticle powders against agglomeration, sintering, and compositional changes can be ensured by collecting the nanoparticles in liquid suspension. For semiconducting particles, stabilization of the liquid suspension has been demonstrated by the addition of polar solvent (Murray et al. 1993); surfactant molecules have been used to stabilize the liquid suspension of metallic nanoparticles. Alternatively, inert silica encapsulation of nanoparticles by gas-phase reaction and by oxidation in colloidal solution has been shown to be effective for metallic nanoparticles (Andres et al. 1998).

New approaches need to be developed for the generation of monodisperse nanoparticles that do not require the use of a size classification procedure. An example of this is a process developed in Japan where very monodispersed gold colloidal nanoparticles with diameters of about 1 nm have been prepared by reduction of metallic salt with UV irradiation in the presence of dendrimers (Esumi et al. 1998). Poly(amidoamine) dendrimers with surface amino groups of higher generations have spherical 3-D structures, which may have an effective protective action for the formation of gold nanoparticles. Although the specific role of dendrimers for the formation of monodispersed nanoparticles has yet to be defined, good monodispersity is thought to come from the complex reaction accompanying the decomposition of dendrimers, which eventually leads to the conversion of solution ions to gold nanoparticles.


Scaleup production is of great interest for nanoparticle synthesis. High energy ball milling, already a commercial high-volume process, as mentioned above, has been instrumental in generating nanoparticles for the preparation of magnetic, structural, and catalytic materials. However, the process produces polydispersed amorphous powder, which requires subsequent partial recrystallization before the powder is consolidated into nanostructured materials. Although gas-phase synthesis is generally a low production rate process (typically in the 100 milligrams per hour range) in research laboratories, higher rates of production (about 20 grams per hour) are being demonstrated at Ångström Laboratory at Uppsala University in Sweden (see Appendix C of this report). Even higher production rates (about 1 kg per hour) are now being achieved commercially. For sol-gel processing, the development of continuous processing techniques based on present knowledge of batch processing has yet to be addressed for economical scaleup production of nanoparticles. Other related sol-gel issues concern the cost of precursors and the recycling of solvent. Overall, sol-gel processing is attractive for commercial scale-up production.

Building Nanoparticle Chains or Wires

A recent paradigm shift envisioned for optoelectronics and computational devices involves the assembly of molecular or quantum wires (Chidsey and Murray 1986). Large polymeric molecules have been used as nano building blocks for nanoporous molecular sieves, biocompatible materials, optical switching, data processing, and other nonlinear optical components. Chain aggregates of nanoparticles can be considered as polymer-like units with their primary particles composed of a few hundred to a few thousand molecules. Thus, these chain aggregates can be considered "heavy" quantum wires. In fact, nanoparticle chain aggregates have been studied extensively as magnetic materials (Zhang and Manthiram 1997), as reinforced elastomers (Pu et al. 1997), and as additives in concrete (Sabir 1997). These aggregates have been shown to have chemical and mechanical properties different from those of individual primary particles (Friedlander et al. 1998). Depending on the particle size and its compositional material, the bonding force responsible for holding the aggregates together varies from weak van der Waals force for micrometer particles to strong chemical bonds for nanometer particles to very strong magnetic dipolar bonds for nanosized magnetic particles. The mechanical, optical, and electronic transport properties can be varied by controlling the diameter and the monodispersity of the primary particles, the crystalline structure and morphology, aggregate length, interfacial properties, and material purity. These chain aggregates can be formed by allowing agglomeration of nanoparticles generated by any of the synthesis techniques discussed above, with the exception of high energy ball milling, which generates particles with low surface area and high anisotropic morphologies, both of which are detrimental for the formation of chain aggregates. Depending on the magnetic and electric charging properties of the nanoparticles, an external applied magnetic or electric field can be used to control the fractal dimension of aggregates. For optical applications of chain aggregates, lower fractal dimensions (i.e., relatively straight chain aggregates with few branches) are desirable.

Building Nanometer Fibers or Tubes

Recent advances in the fabrication of nanometer fibers or tubes offer another form of building blocks for nanostructured materials. An effective way to generate nanometer fibers (or tubes) is based on the use of membrane-template techniques (Martin 1994). Membranes, with nanochannels generated by fission-fragment tracks or by electrochemical etching of aluminum metal, are used as templates for either chemical or electrochemical deposition of conductive polymers (Pathasarathy and Martin 1994), metal (van de Zande et al. 1997), semiconductor (Klein et al. 1993), and other materials for the generation of nanofibers or tubes. Since the nanochannels on membranes are very uniform in size, the diameter and the aspect ratio of the nanofibers (or tubes) synthesized by the membrane-template technique can be precisely controlled. This greatly facilitates the interpretation of optical data and the processing of these fibers (or tubes) into 2-D nanostructured materials (de Heer et al. 1995). Single-crystal semiconductor nanofibers can also be grown catalytically by metalorganic vapor phase epitaxy and laser ablation vapor-liquid-solid techniques (Hiruma et al. 1995; Morales and Lieber 1998). The synthesis of these one-dimensional structures with diameters in the range of 3 to 15 nm holds considerable technological promise for optoelectronic device applications, such as the p-n junctions for light emission at Hitachi Central Research Laboratory in Japan (see Appendix D of this report).

The advent of carbon-based nanotubes has created yet another way to fabricate nanometer fibers and tubes. These nanotubes have been used as templates for the fabrication of carbide and oxide nanotubes (Dai et al. 1995; Kasuga et al. 1998). Synthesis of nanotubes based on BN, BC3 and BC2N have also been reported (Chopra et al. 1995; Miyamoto et al. 1994). These nanotubes potentially possess large third-order optical non-linearity and other unusual properties (Xie and Jiang 1998). Metallic nanofibers synthesized by carbon-nanotube-template techniques are useful in the design of infrared absorption materials. The carbon nanotubes can now be catalytically produced in large quantities and have been used for reinforcement of nanostructural composite materials and concrete (Peigney et al. 1997).

Published: September 1999; WTEC Hyper-Librarian