The role of nanoparticle size and ligand coverage in size focusing of colloidal metal nanoparticles


Controlling the size distribution of nanoparticles is important for many applications and typically involves the use of ligands during synthesis. In this study, we show that the mechanism of size focusing involves a dependence of the growth rate on the size of the nanoparticles and the ligand coverage on the surface of the nanoparticles. To demonstrate these effects, we used in situ small angle X-ray scattering (SAXS) and population balance kinetic modeling (PBM) to investigate the evolution of size distribution during the synthesis of colloidal Pd metal nanoparticles. Despite temporal overlap of nucleation and growth, our in situ SAXS show size focusing of the distribution under different synthetic conditions (different concentrations of metal and ligand as well as solvent type). To understand the mechanism of size focusing using PBM, we systematically studied how the evolution of the nanoparticle size distribution is affected by nucleation rate, and dependence of the growth rate constant on ligand surface coverage, and size of the nanoparticles. We show that continuous nucleation contributes to size defocusing. However, continuous nucleation results in different reaction times for the nanoparticle population leading to time and size-dependent ligand surface coverage. Using density functional theory (DFT) calculations and BrOnsted-Evans-Polanyi relations, we show that as the population grows, larger nanoparticles grow more slowly than smaller ones due to lower intrinsic activity and higher ligand coverage on the surface. Therefore, despite continuous nucleation, the faster growth of smaller nanoparticles in the population leads to size focusing. The size focusing behaviour (due to faster growth of smaller nanoparticles) was found to be model independent and similar results were demonstrated under different nucleation and growth pathways (e.g. growth via ion reduction on the surface and/or monomer addition). Our results provide a microscopic connection between kinetics and thermodynamics of nanoparticle growth and metal-ligand binding, and their effect on the size distribution of colloidal nanoparticles.