In this investigation, we established a new sensitive, selective and label free optical method for the detection of mercury ions (Hg2+) by utilizing cyano (–CN) ligand functionalized gold nanorods (GNRs) based on the surface plasmon resonance (SPR) of the GNRs. The functionalization of the GNRs was specifically done with a –CN group containing polymer, poly(2-aminobenzonitrile) (P2ABN), to preconcentrate the Hg2+ ions on the surface of the GNRs prior to detection. The functionalization of the GNRs was carried out by two approaches. In the first approach, the GNR surface was modified with a porous silica network containing P2ABN (designated as GNR@silica-CN). In the second approach, GNR was modified with P2ABN (designated as GNR@P2ABN). The Hg2+ ion detection strategy involves the preconcentration of Hg ions on the surface of GNR@silica-CN or GNR@P2ABN through the interaction of the –CN groups in P2ABN with Hg2+ ions, reduction to Hg0 atoms by ascorbic acid (AA), and monitoring the SPR of GNRs. The porous network in GNR@silica-CN allows efficient migration of Hg0 to reach the GNR surface and causes effective amalgamation compared to GNR@P2ABN. As a result, GNR@silica-CN exhibits a significant change in the SPR of GNRs over a wide dynamic concentration range (from 50 nM to 5 μM) for Hg2+ ions. The very low detection limit of 1 ppb with GNR@silica-CN for Hg2+ ions suggests its excellent potential for the monitoring and detection of ultra low levels of Hg. In addition, the GNR@silica-CN shows no sensitivity for other environmentally relevant metal ions which confirms the high specificity for Hg2+ ion detection in practical samples. We demonstrated the effectiveness of the present method by detecting Hg2+ ions in spiked water (pond and water) samples. We envisage that this simple, fast and sensitive method will be suitable for environmental monitoring in the future.
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