Kinetic trapping through coalescence and the formation of patterned Ag–Cu nanoparticles†
In recent years, due to its inherent flexibility, magnetron-sputtering has been widely used to synthesise bi-metallic nanoparticles (NPs) via subsequent inert-gas cooling and gas-phase condensation of the sputtered atomic vapour. Utilising two separate sputter targets allows for good control over composition. Simultaneously, it involves fast kinetics and non-equilibrium processes, which can trap the nascent NPs into metastable configurations. In this study, we observed such configurations in immiscible, bi-metallic Ag–Cu NPs by scanning transmission electron microscopy (S/TEM) and electron energy-loss spectroscopy (EELS), and noticed a marked difference in the shape of NPs belonging to Ag- and Cu-rich samples. We explained the formation of Janus or Ag@Cu core/shell metastable structures on the grounds of in-flight mixed NP coalescence. We utilised molecular dynamics (MD) and Monte Carlo (MC) computer simulations to demonstrate that such configurations cannot occur as a result of nanoalloy segregation. Instead, sintering at relatively low temperatures can give rise to metastable structures, which eventually can be stabilised by subsequent quenching. Furthermore, we compared the heteroepitaxial diffusivities along various surfaces of both Ag and Cu NPs, and emphasised the differences between the sintering mechanisms of Ag- and Cu-rich NP compositions: small Cu NPs deform as coherent objects on large Ag NPs, whereas small Ag NPs dissolve into large Cu NPs, with their atoms diffusing along specific directions. Taking advantage of this observation, we propose controlled NP coalescence as a method to engineer mixed NPs of a unique, patterned core@partial-shell structure, which we refer to as a “glass-float” (ukidama) structure.