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[1] : 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. The reason for this double name of the same object is that, during the 1970-80's, when the first thorough fundamental studies were running with "nanoparticles" in the USA (by Granqvist and Buhrman)[2] and Japan, (within an ERATO Project)[3] they were called "ultrafine particles" (UFP). However, during the 1990s before the National Nanotechnology Initiative was launched in the USA, the new name, "nanoparticle" had become fashionable (see, for example the same senior author's paper 20 years later addressing the same issue, lognormal distribution of sizes [4]). Nanoparticles may or may not exhibit size-related properties that differ significantly from those observed in fine particles or bulk materials.[5][6] 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[7] 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.

TEM (a, b, and c) images of prepared mesoporous silica nanoparticles with mean outer diameter: (a) 20nm, (b) 45nm, and (c) 80nm. SEM (d) image corresponding to (b). The insets are a high magnification of mesoporous silica particle.[8]

The National Nanotechnology Initiative has led to generous public funding for nanoparticle research in the United States.



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[citation needed].

Even these days, pottery from the Middle Ages and Renaissance often retain 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.

The luster originated within the film itself, which contained silver and copper nanoparticles dispersed homogeneously in the glassy matrix of the ceramic glaze. These nanoparticles were created by the artisans by adding copper and silver salts and oxides together with vinegar, ochre and clay, on the surface of previously-glazed pottery. The object was then placed into a kiln and heated to about 600 °C in a reducing atmosphere.

In the heat the glaze would soften, causing the copper and silver ions to migrate into the outer layers of the glaze. There the reducing atmosphere reduced the ions back to metals, which then came together forming the nanoparticles that give the colour and optical effects.

Luster technique showed that ancient craftsmen had a rather sophisticated empirical knowledge of materials. The technique originated in the islamic world. As Muslims were not allowed to use gold in artistic representations, they had to find a way to create a similar effect without using real gold. The solution they found was using luster.[9]

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." [10][11][12]


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. [13] [14] [15]

In addition, any fluctuations in packing density in the compact as it is prepared for the kiln are often amplified during the sintering process, yielding inhomogeneous densification. Some pores and other structural defects associated with density variations have been shown to play a detrimental role in the sintering process by growing and thus limiting end-point densities. Differential stresses arising from inhomogeneous densification have also been shown to result in the propagation of internal cracks, thus becoming the strength-controlling flaws. [16][17] [18]

Inert gas evaporation and inert gas deposition [2][3] are free many of these defects due to the distillation (c.f. purification) nature of the process and having enough time to form single crystal particles, however even their non-aggreated deposits have lognormal size distribution, which is typical with nanoparticles.[3] The reason why modern gas evaporation techniques can produce a relatively narrow size distribution is that aggregation can be avoided.[3] However, even in this case, random residence times in the growth zone, due to the combination of drift and diffusion, result in a size distribution appearing lognormal.[4]

It would therefore appear desirable to process a material in such a way that it is physically uniform with regard to the distribution of components and porosity, rather than using particle size distributions which will maximize the green density. The containment of a uniformly dispersed assembly of strongly interacting particles in suspension requires total control over interparticle forces. Monodisperse nanoparticles and colloids provide this potential. [19]

Monodisperse powders of colloidal silica, for example, may therefore be stabilized sufficiently to ensure a high degree of order in the colloidal crystal or polycrystalline colloidal solid which results from aggregation. The degree of order appears to be limited by the time and space allowed for longer-range correlations to be established. Such defective polycrystalline colloidal structures would appear to be the basic elements of submicrometer colloidal materials science, and, therefore, provide the first step in developing a more rigorous understanding of the mechanisms involved in microstructural evolution in high performance materials and components. [20] [21]


Silicon nanopowder

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 (or micron), 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. Gold nanoparticles melt at much lower temperatures (~300 °C for 2.5 nm size) than the gold slabs (1064 °C);.[22] And absorption of solar radiation in photovoltaic cells is much higher in materials composed of nanoparticles than it is in thin films of continuous sheets of material. I.E. the smaller the particles, the greater the solar absorption.

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. Ferromagnetic materials smaller than 10 nm can switch their magnetisation direction using room temperature thermal energy, thus making them unsuitable for memory storage.[23]

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 can not 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,[24] and is completely photostable.[25]

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.[26]

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.


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.

A 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 (see Induction plasma technology).

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.


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. [27]

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.[28]

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 favor 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.[29][30]


The term colloid is used primarily to describe a broad range of solid–liquid (and/or liquid–liquid) mixtures, all of which contain distinct solid (and/or liquid) particles which are dispersed to various degrees in a liquid medium. The term is specific to the size of the individual particles, which are larger than atomic dimensions but small enough to exhibit Brownian motion. If the particles are large enough, then their dynamic behavior in any given period of time in suspension would be governed by forces of gravity and sedimentation. But if they are small enough to be colloids, then their irregular motion in suspension can be attributed to the collective bombardment of a myriad of thermally agitated molecules in the liquid suspending medium, as described originally by Albert Einstein in his dissertation. Einstein proved the existence of water molecules by concluding that this erratic particle behavior could adequately be described using the theory of Brownian motion, with sedimentation being a possible long-term result. This critical size range (or particle diameter) typically ranges from nanometers (10−9 m) to micrometers (10−6 m).[31]


Nanostars of vanadium(IV) oxide

Scientists have taken to naming their particles after the real world shapes that they might represent. Nanospheres,[32] nanoreefs,[33] nanoboxes [34] and more have appeared in the literature. These morphologies sometimes arise spontaneously as an effect of a templating or directing agent present in the synthesis such as miscellar emulsions or anodized alumina pores, or from the innate crystallographic growth patterns of the materials themselves.[35] Some of these morphologies may serve a purpose, such as long carbon nanotubes being used to bridge an electrical junction, or just a scientific curiosity like the stars shown at right.

Amorphous particles usually adopt a spherical shape (due to their microstructural isotropy) – whereas the shape of anisotropic microcrystalline whiskers corresponds to their particular crystal habit. At the small end of the size range, nanoparticles are often referred to as clusters. Spheres[disambiguation needed ], rods[disambiguation needed ], fibers, and cups are just a few of the shapes that have been grown. The study of fine particles is called micromeritics.


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 (see Robert Brown), 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.


The surface coating of nanoparticles is crucial to determining their properties. In particular, the surface coating can regulate stability, solubility and targeting. A coating that is multivalent or polymeric confers high stability.

Surface coating for biological applications

For biological applications, the surface coating should be polar to give high aqueous solubility and prevent nanoparticle aggregation. In serum or on the cell surface, highly charged coatings promote non-specific binding, while polyethylene glycol linked to terminal hydroxyl or methoxy groups repel non-specific interactions.[36][37] Nanoparticles can be linked to biological molecules which can act as address tags, to direct the nanoparticles to specific sites within the body,[38] specific organelles within the cell,[39] or to follow specifically the movement of individual protein or RNA molecules in living cells.[40] Common address tags are monoclonal antibodies, aptamers, streptavidin or peptides. These targeting agents should ideally be covalently linked to the nanoparticle and should be present in a controlled number per nanoparticle. Multivalent nanoparticles, bearing multiple targeting groups, can cluster receptors, which can activate cellular signaling pathways, and give stronger anchoring. Monovalent nanoparticles, bearing a single binding site,[41][42][43] avoid clustering and so are preferable for tracking the behavior of individual proteins.

See also Nanomedicine#Nanoparticle targeting

Red blood cell coatings can help nanoparticles evade the immune system.[44]


Nanoparticles present possible dangers, both medically and environmentally.[45] Most of these are due to the high surface to volume ratio, which can make the particles very reactive or catalytic.[46] They are also able to pass through cell membranes in organisms, and their interactions with biological systems are relatively unknown.[47] A recent study looking at the effects of ZnO nanoparticles on human immune cells has found varying levels of susceptibility to cytotoxicity.[48] Smaller nanoparticles evinced increased cytotoxicity. Lymphocytes (especially naive T cells) were found to be more resistant to nanoparticle cytotoxicity than monocytes, likely due to the capacity of the latter to produce higher levels of reactive oxygen species in response to internalized nanoparticles. Previously activated memory T cells were more susceptible than naive T cells, implying a relationship between cell-cycle and nanoparticle susceptibility. In addition, nanoparticle concentrations below those causing appreciable cell death nonetheless induced the production of proinflammatory cytokines, such as IFN-γ and TNF. Despite these laboratory findings, free nanoparticles in the environment may rapidly agglomerate and thus leave the nano-regime[citation needed]. Nature itself presents many nanoparticles to which organisms on earth may have evolved immunity (such as salt particulates from ocean aerosols, terpenes from plants, or dust from volcanic eruptions)[citation needed]. A more complete analysis is provided in the article on nanotechnology.

Animal studies have shown that some nanoparticles can penetrate cells and tissues, move through the body and brain and cause biochemical damage. They also have shown to cause a risk factor in men for testicular cancer. But whether cosmetics and sunscreens containing nanomaterials pose health risks remains largely unknown at this stage.[49] Diesel nanoparticles have been found to damage the cardiovascular system in a mouse model.[50]

Concern has also been raised over the health effects of respirable nanoparticles from certain combustion processes.[51]

Laser applications

The use of nanoparticle distributions in laser dye-doped poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA) laser gain media was demonstrated in 2003 and it has been shown to improve conversion efficiencies and to decrease laser beam divergence.[52] Researchers attribute the reduction in beam divergence to improved dn/dT characteristics of the organic-inorganic dye-doped nanocomposite. The optimum composition reported by these researchers is 30% w/w of SiO2 (~ 12 nm) in dye-doped PMMA.

Medicinal applications

See also


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