The elusive silica/water interface: isolated silanols under water as revealed by vibrational sum frequency spectroscopy†
It has been long recognized that the surface chemistry of silica, and in particular the type and relative amount of surface bound silanol groups, plays a critical role in many of the properties associated with the material, where a typical example is the discrepant adsorption behavior observed depending on the pretreatment history of the surface. However, in spite of its importance, the direct probing of specific surface silanol groups under water has been hampered by instrumental limitations. Here we make use of vibrational sum frequency spectroscopy (VSFS) to first, identify under water the OH stretch of isolated surface silanols, and second, explore its acid/base behavior and dependence on the surface pretreatment method. The properties of other types of silanol groups (i.e. hydrogen bonded/geminal) are also inferred from the data. The ability to directly probe these functional groups under water represents a crucial step to further improving our understanding of this widely used mineral oxide.