Mapping out the aqueous surface chemistry of metal oxide nanocrystals; carboxylate, phosphonate and catecholate ligands

16 December 2021, Version 1
This content is a preprint and has not undergone peer review at the time of posting.


Iron oxide and hafnium oxide nanocrystals are two of the few successful examples of inorganic nanocrystals used in a clinical setting. Although crucial to their application, their aqueous surface chemistry is not fully understood. The literature contains conflicting reports regarding the optimum binding group. To alleviate these inconsistencies, we set out to systematically investigate the interaction of carboxylic acids, phosphonic acids and catechols to metal oxide nanocrystals in polar media. Using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectroscopy and Dynamic Light Scattering, we map out the pH-dependent binding affinity of the ligands towards hafnium oxide nanocrystals (an NMR compatible model system). Carboxylic acids easily desorb in water from the surface and only provide limited colloidal stability from pH 2 – 6. Phosphonic acids on the other hand provide colloidal stability over a broader pH range but also feature a pH-dependent desorption from the surface. They are most suited for acidic to neutral environments (pH < 8). Finally, nitrocatechol derivatives provide a tightly bound ligand shell and colloidal stability at physiological and basic pH (6-10). While dynamically bound ligands (carboxylates and phosphonates) do not provide colloidal stability in phosphate buffered saline, the tightly bound nitrocatechols provide long term stability. We thus shed light on the complex ligand binding dynamics on metal oxide nanocrystals in aqueous environments. Finally, we provide a practical colloidal stability map, guiding researchers to rationally design ligands for their desired application.


carboxylic acid
phosphonic acid
hafnium oxide

Supplementary materials

supporting info for mapping out the aqueous surface chemistry of metal oxide nanocrystals
Experimental methods, NMR spectra of titrations and synthesized compounds, PDF analysis, peak deconvolutions, UV-vis spectra of nitrodopamine-mPEG, DLS data of carboxylate capped nanocrystals


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