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.
supporting info for mapping out the aqueous surface chemistry of metal oxide nanocrystals