Quantitative measurement of the nanoparticle size and number concentration from liquid suspensions by atomic force microscopy†
Microscopy techniques are indispensable to the nanoanalytical toolbox and can provide accurate information on the number size distribution and number concentration of nanoparticles (NPs) at low concentrations (ca. ppt to ppb range) and small sizes (ca. <20 nm). However, the high capabilities of microscopy techniques are limited by the traditional sample preparation based on drying a small volume of suspension of NPs on a microscopy substrate. This method is limited by low recovery of NPs (ca. <10%), formation of aggregates during the drying process, and thus, the complete misrepresentation of the NP suspensions under consideration. This paper presents a validated quantitative sampling technique for atomic force microscopy (AFM) that overcomes the above-mentioned shortcomings and allows full recovery and representativeness of the NPs under consideration by forcing the NPs into the substrate via ultracentrifugation and strongly attaches the NPs to the substrate by surface functionalization of the substrate or by adding cations to the NP suspension. The high efficiency of the analysis is demonstrated by the uniformity of the NP distribution on the substrate (that is low variability between the number of NPs counted on different images on different areas of the substrate), the high recovery of the NPs up to 71%) and the good correlation (R > 0.95) between the mass and number concentrations. Therefore, for the first time, we developed a validated quantitative sampling technique that enables the use of the full capabilities of microscopy tools to quantitatively and accurately determine the number size distribution and number concentration of NPs at environmentally relevant low concentrations (i.e. 0.34–100 ppb). This approach is of high environmental relevance and can be applied widely in environmental nanoscience and nanotoxicology for (i) measuring the number concentration dose in nanotoxicological studies and (ii) accurately measuring the number size distribution of NPs; both are key requirements for the implementation of the European Commission recommendation for definition of nanomaterials.