Gas phase condensation of superparamagnetic iron oxide–silica nanoparticles – control of the intraparticle phase distribution†
Spherical, softly agglomerated and superparamagnetic nanoparticles (NPs) consisting of maghemite (γ-Fe2O3) and amorphous silica (SiO2) were prepared by CO2 laser co-vaporization (CoLAVA) of hematite powder (α-Fe2O3) and quartz sand (SiO2). The α-Fe2O3 portion of the homogeneous starting mixtures was gradually increased (15 mass%–95 mass%). It was found that (i) with increasing iron oxide content the NPs’ morphology changes from a nanoscale SiO2 matrix with multiple γ-Fe2O3 inclusions to Janus NPs consisting of a γ-Fe2O3 and a SiO2 hemisphere to γ-Fe2O3 NPs each carrying one small SiO2 lens on its surface, (ii) the multiple γ-Fe2O3 inclusions accumulate at the NPs’ inner surfaces, and (iii) all composite NPs are covered by a thin layer of amorphous SiO2. These morphological characteristics are attributed to (i) the phase segregation of iron oxide and silica within the condensed Fe2O3–SiO2 droplets, (ii) the temperature gradient within these droplets which arises during rapid cooling in the CoLAVA process, and (iii) the significantly lower surface energy of silica when compared to iron oxide. The proposed growth mechanism of these Fe2O3–SiO2 composite NPs during gas phase condensation can be transferred to other systems comprising a glass-network former and another component that is insoluble in the regarding glass. Thus, our model will facilitate the development of novel functional composite NPs for applications in biomedicine, optics, electronics, or catalysis.