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Delving Into the Secrets of Nanoparticles

Stanford researchers are exploring phase-changing nanoparticles from the inside to better understand and optimize their performance.

Kristopher Sturgis

Stanford nanoparticles shifting
Individual phase-changing nanoparticles can vary in shape. (Image courtesy of Stanford)

The study represents the latest in nanoparticle research that seeks to explore the potential of nanomaterials, specifically in energy and biomedical related technologies. Despite many recent technological breakthroughs relying on materials made from nanoparticles, engineers have struggled to optimize the application of nanoparticle technologies given their inability to observe and study nanoparticles in action.

In an attempt to bridge this gap, Stanford engineers decided to study nanoparticles that varied in size, shape, and crystallinity to see how they behaved differently, and if these attributes have an affect on their performance. Jennifer Dionne, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford and one of the authors on the work, says that once they decided to examine the different types of nanoparticle behaviour, they found that size and crystallinity are quite important factors to consider.

"Our work shows that certain types of nanoparticles--such as polycrystalline nanoparticles with compressive strains--have a reduced energy storage capacity compared with other nanoparticles," Dionne says. "This result implies that the best nanoparticles for energy storage have a particular size, shape, and crystallinity. Those are the nanoparticles that should be targeted in next-generation battery electrode design."

The work matters in the medical device field because nanoparticles have shown promise in everything from attacking cancer to treating cardiovascular disease.

In the past, when engineers examined the performance of a collection of nanoparticles, it was difficult to determine whether or not their performance was the result of each individual nanoparticle performing similarly, or if their collective performance was simply the result of high and low performing nanoparticles averaged together. Dionne and her team of researchers theorized that this determination could be made by simply examining nanoparticles individually to understand what characteristics make the difference.

"It is well known that nanomaterials have properties that are quite distinct from bulk materials," Dionne says. "But less is known about how certain nanostructures differ from others."

"We were inspired by work showing that battery electrodes comprised of nanoparticles have an increased energy capacity and an extended lifecycle compared to bulk electrodes," Dionne says. "We wanted to know if different types of nanoparticles behaved differently by studying individual nanoparticles, and what we found was that size and crystallinity matter a lot."

Dionne and her group were able to examine phase-changing nanoparticles individually thanks to a very rare piece of technology known as an environmental transmission electron microscope. The microscope enabled the engineers to analyze individual nanoparticles using several different techniques like direct imaging, spectroscopy, and diffraction. Each technique showed the group new information about how individual nanoparticles interact, creating a multi-dimensional understanding with exceptional resolution.

"In-situ environmental electron microscopy is a remarkable tool," Dionne said. "We can now image materials with near atomic scale resolution in dynamic environments. In general, environmental electron microscopies have the potential to revolutionize our understanding of materials and devices."

Going forward, Dionne and her colleagues hope that their study can serve as the groundwork toward an increased understanding of individual nanoparticles, so that their potential as a material can be optimized.

"We're striving to better understand the mechanisms of energy generation, energy storage, and biological signaling, to enable a cleaner planet and a healthier population," Dionne says. "Our current work is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is possible." 

Learn more about cutting-edge medical devices at MD&M East, June 14-15, 2016 in New York City.

Kristopher Sturgis is a contributor to Qmed and MPMN.

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