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  • Tracking Particles With Gold Rods
Feb 2010
HOUSTON, Feb. 8, 2010 – A group of Rice University researchers, led by Stephan Link, has found a way to use nanometer-scale gold rods as orientation sensors by combining their plasmonic properties with polarization-imaging techniques. The work may make it possible to see and perhaps track single nanoparticles over long periods and give other scientists new information about materials, including living systems, that incorporate nanoparticles.

“With a spherical particle, you don’t have any information about how it’s oriented,” said Link, an assistant professor of chemistry and electrical and computer engineering. “We wanted to see if we could determine the orientation of the nanorods, and eventually we’d like to be able to measure the orientation of the environment they’re in. We think this technique could be really useful for that.”

Rice scientists have shown that, because surface plasmons are highly polarized along the length of a gold nanorod, tracking their orientation becomes easier. (Photo courtesy of Rice University.)

Link, primary author Wei-Shun Chang and their collaborators reported their results this week in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Seeing a single nanoparticle is nothing new. A scanning tunneling microscope (STMs) can capture images of particles down to a few nanometers, and particles tagged with fluorescent molecules can be seen for as long as the fluorophores are active.

But there are problems with both techniques. STMs see nanotubes or quantum dots just fine as long as they’re more or less isolated on a conductive surface. But in the wild, the particles get lost amid the clutter of everything else the microscope sees. And while fluorophores can help pick particles out of the crowd, they can deteriorate in as little as 30 s, which limits their usefulness.

Gold nanorods can be “lit up” at will. Lasers at particular wavelengths excite surface plasmons that absorb the energy and emit a heat signature that can be detected by a probe laser. Because plasmons are highly polarized along a nanorod’s length, reading the signal while turning the polarization of the laser tells researchers precisely how the rod is oriented.

An electron microscope photo from the new paper shows nanorods about 75 nm long and 25 nm wide on a glass slide at 90° to each other. An adjacent photothermal image shows them as pixilated smudges. The smudges are strongest when the laser polarization aligns lengthwise with the nanorods, but they disappear when the laser polarization and rods are 90° out of phase.

“With plasmonics, you always have two properties: absorption and scattering,” Link said. “Depending on the size, one or the other dominates. What’s unique is that it’s now possible to do both on the same structure or do it individually – so we can only measure absorption or only measure scattering.”

Nanorods much smaller than 50 nm are not detectable by some scattering methods, Link said, but photothermal detection should work with metallic particles as small as 5 nm; this makes them useful for biological applications.

“These gold nanorods are biocompatible. They are not toxic to cells,” said Chang, noting their similarity to gold nanoshells currently in human cancer therapy trials based on research by Naomi Halas and Jennifer West, also of Rice University.

“Our work is more geared to the fundamentals,” Link said of the basic nature of his group’s research. “Maybe we can optimize the conditions, and then a physician or somebody who’s engineering a probe can take it from there. Our place is a little further down the chain of development. I’m happy with that.”

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The transfer of energy from an incident electromagnetic energy field with wavelength or frequency to an atomic or molecular medium.
With respect to light radiation, the restriction of the vibrations of the magnetic or electric field vector to a single plane. In a beam of electromagnetic radiation, the polarization direction is the direction of the electric field vector (with no distinction between positive and negative as the field oscillates back and forth). The polarization vector is always in the plane at right angles to the beam direction. Near some given stationary point in space the polarization direction in the beam...
quantum dots
Also known as QDs. Nanocrystals of semiconductor materials that fluoresce when excited by external light sources, primarily in narrow visible and near-infrared regions; they are commonly used as alternatives to organic dyes.  
Change of the spatial distribution of a beam of radiation when it interacts with a surface or a heterogeneous medium, in which process there is no change of wavelength of the radiation.
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