We hear a lot about nanoparticles. The often unexpected properties of these tiny specks of matter are giving them applications in everything from synthetic antibodies to fuel cells to water filters and far beyond. Recently, for the first time ever, scientists were able to watch the particles grow from their earliest stage of development. Given that the performance of nanoparticles is based on their structure, composition, and size, being able to see how they grow could lead to the development of better growing conditions, and thus better nanotechnology.

The research was carried out by a team of scientists from the Center for Nanoscale Materials, the Advanced Photon Source (both run by America’s Argonne National Laboratory) and the High Pressure Synergetic Consortium (HPSynC).

The team used highly focused high-energy X-ray diffraction to observe the nanoparticles. Amongst other things, it was noted that the initial chemical reaction often occurred quite quickly, then continued to evolve over time.

“It’s been very difficult to watch these tiny particles be born and grow in the past because traditional techniques require that the sample be in a vacuum and many nanoparticles are grown in a metal-conducting liquid,” said study coauthor Wenge Yang. “We have not been able to see how different conditions affect the particles, much less understand how we can tweak the conditions to get a desired effect.”

HPSynC’s Russell Hemley added, “This study shows the promise of new techniques for probing crystal growth in real time. Our ultimate goal is to use these new methods to track chemical reactions as they occur under a variety of conditions, including variable pressures and temperatures, and to use that knowledge to design and make new materials for energy applications.”

The research was recently published in the journal NANOLetters.