Monolayer-protected metal nanoparticles (NPs) are not only promising materials with a wide range of potential industrial and biological applications, but they are also a powerful tool to investigate the behavior of matter at nanoscopic scales, including the stability of dispersions and colloidal systems. This stability is dependent on a delicate balance between electrostatic and steric interactions that occur in the solution, and it is described in quantitative terms by the classic Derjaguin-Landau-Vewey-Overbeek (DLVO) theory, that posits that aggregation between NPs is driven by hydrophobic interactions and opposed by electrostatic interactions. To investigate the limits of this theory at the nanoscale, where the continuum assumptions required by the DLVO theory break down, here we investigate NP dimerization by computing the Potential of Mean Force (PMF) of this process using fully atomistic MD simulations. Serendipitously, we find that electrostatic interactions can lead to the formation of metastable NP dimers. These dimers are stabilized by complexes formed by negatively charged ligands belonging to distinct NPs that are bridged by positively charged ions present in solution. We validate our findings by collecting tomographic EM images of NPs in solution and by quantifying their radial distribution function, that shows a marked peak at interparticle distance comparable with that of MD simulations. Taken together, our results suggest that not only hydrophobic interactions, but also electrostatic interactions, contribute to attraction between nano-sized charged objects at very short length scales.
Supplementary Information for 'Ion-mediated charge-charge interactions drive aggregation of surface-functionalized gold nanoparticles'