Barium Selective Chemosensing by Diazacrown Ether Naphthalimide Turn-on Fluorophores for Single Ion Barium Tagging

Single molecule fluorescence detection of barium is investigated for enhancing the sensitivity and robustness of a neutrinoless double beta decay ($0\nu\beta\beta$) search in $^{136}$Xe, the discovery of which would alter our understanding of the nature of neutrinos and the early history of the Universe. A key developmental step is the synthesis of barium-selective chemosensors capable of incorporation into ongoing experiments in high-pressure $^{136}$Xe gas. Here we report turn-on fluorescent naphthalimide chemosensors containing monoaza- and diaza-crown ethers as agents for single Ba$^{2+}$ detection. Monoaza-18-crown-6 ether naphthalimide sensors showed sensitivity primarily to Ba$^{2+}$ and Hg$^{2+}$, whereas two diaza-18-crown-6 ether naphthalimides revealed a desirable selectivity toward Ba$^{2+}$. Solution-phase fluorescence and NMR experiments support a photoinduced electron transfer mechanism enabling turn-on fluorescence sensing in the presence of barium ions. Changes in ion-receptor interactions enable effective selectivity between competitive barium, mercury, and potassium ions, with detailed calculations correctly predicting fluorescence responses. With these molecules, dry-phase single Ba$^{2+}$ ion imaging with turn-on fluorescence is realized using oil-free microscopy techniques. This represents a significant advance toward a practical method of single Ba$^{2+}$ detection within large volumes of $^{136}$Xe, plausibly enabling a background-free technique to search for the hypothetical process of $0\nu\beta\beta$.