Small iron oxide nanoparticles as MRI T1 contrast agent: scalable inexpensive water-based synthesis using a flow reactor†
Small iron oxide nanoparticles (IONPs) were synthesised in water via co-precipitation by quenching particle growth after the desired magnetic iron oxide phase formed. This was achieved in a millifluidic multistage flow reactor by precisely timed addition of an acidic solution. IONPs (≤5 nm), a suitable size for positive T1 magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) contrast agents, were obtained and stabilised continuously. This novel flow chemistry approach facilitates a reproducible and scalable production, which is a crucial paradigm shift to utilise IONPs as contrast agents and replace currently used Gd complexes. Acid addition had to be timed carefully, as the inverse spinel structure formed within seconds after initiating the co-precipitation. Late quenching allowed IONPs to grow larger than 5 nm, whereas premature acid addition yielded undesired oxide phases. Use of a flow reactor was not only essential for scalability, but also to synthesise monodisperse and non-agglomerated small IONPs as (i) co-precipitation and acid addition occurred at homogenous environment due to accurate temperature control and rapid mixing and (ii) quenching of particle growth was possible at the optimum time, i.e., a few seconds after initiating co-precipitation. In addition to the timing of growth quenching, the effect of temperature and dextran present during co-precipitation on the final particle size was investigated. This approach differs from small IONP syntheses in batch utilising either growth inhibitors (which likely leads to impurities) or high temperature methods in organic solvents. Furthermore, this continuous synthesis enables the low-cost (<£10 per g) and large-scale production of highly stable small IONPs without the use of toxic reagents. The flow-synthesised small IONPs showed high T1 contrast enhancement, with transversal relaxivity (r2) reduced to 20.5 mM−1 s−1 and longitudinal relaxivity (r1) higher than 10 mM−1 s−1, which is among the highest values reported for water-based IONP synthesis.
- This article is part of the themed collection: Advanced Functional Nanomaterials for Biomedical Applications