Characterization of magnetic nanoparticle by dynamic light scattering
© Lim et al.; licensee Springer. 2013
Received: 7 August 2013
Accepted: 30 August 2013
Published: 8 September 2013
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© Lim et al.; licensee Springer. 2013
Received: 7 August 2013
Accepted: 30 August 2013
Published: 8 September 2013
Here we provide a complete review on the use of dynamic light scattering (DLS) to study the size distribution and colloidal stability of magnetic nanoparticles (MNPs). The mathematical analysis involved in obtaining size information from the correlation function and the calculation of Z-average are introduced. Contributions from various variables, such as surface coating, size differences, and concentration of particles, are elaborated within the context of measurement data. Comparison with other sizing techniques, such as transmission electron microscopy and dark-field microscopy, revealed both the advantages and disadvantages of DLS in measuring the size of magnetic nanoparticles. The self-assembly process of MNP with anisotropic structure can also be monitored effectively by DLS.
Magnetic nanoparticles (MNPs) with a diameter between 1 to 100 nm have found uses in many applications [1, 2]. This nanoscale magnetic material has several advantages that provide many exciting opportunities or even a solution to various biomedically [3–5] and environmentally [6–8] related problems. Firstly, it is possible to synthesize a wide range of MNPs with well-defined structures and size which can be easily matched with the interest of targeted applications. Secondly, the MNP itself can be manipulated by an externally applied magnetic force. The capability to control the spatial evolution of MNPs within a confined space provides great benefits for the development of sensing and diagnostic system/techniques [9, 10]. Moreover MNPs, such as Fe0 and Fe3O4, that exhibit a strong catalytic function can be employed as an effective nanoagent to remove a number of persistent pollutants from water resources [11, 12]. In addition to all the aforementioned advantages, the recent development of various techniques and procedures for producing highly monodispersed and size-controllable MNPs [13, 14] has played a pivotal role in promoting the active explorations and research of MNPs.
In all of the applications involving the use of MNPs, the particle size remained as the most important parameter as many of the chemical and physical properties associated to MNPs are strongly dependent upon the nanoparticle diameter. In particular, one of the unique features of a MNP is its high-surface-to-volume ratio, and this property is inversely proportional to the diameter of the MNP. The smaller the MNP is, the larger its surface area and, hence, the more loading sites are available for applications such as drug delivery and heavy metal removal. Furthermore, nanoparticle size also determines the magnetophoretic forces (Fmag) experienced by a MNP since Fmag is directly proportional to the volume of the particles . In this regard, having size information is crucial as at nanoregime, the MNP is extremely susceptible to Stoke’s drag  and thermal randomization energy . The successful manipulation of MNP can only be achieved if the Fmag introduced is sufficient to overcome both thermal and viscous hindrances . In addition, evidences on the (eco)toxicological impacts of nanomaterials have recently surfaced . The contributing factors of nanotoxicity are still a subject of debate; however, it is very likely due to either (1) the characteristic small dimensional effects of nanomaterials that are not shared by their bulk counterparts with the same chemical composition  or (2) biophysicochemical interactions at the nano-bio interface dictated by colloidal forces . For either reason, the MNP’s size is one of the determining factors.
The technique of dynamic light scattering (DLS) has been widely employed for sizing MNPs in liquid phase [22, 23]. However, the precision of the determined particle size is not completely understood due to a number of unevaluated effects, such as concentration of particle suspension, scattering angle, and shape anisotropy of nanoparticles . In this review, the underlying working principle of DLS is first provided to familiarize the readers with the mathematical analysis involved for correct interpretation of DLS data. Later, the contribution from various factors, such as suspension concentration, particle shape, colloidal stability, and surface coating of MNPs, in dictating the sizing of MNPs by DLS is discussed in detail. It is the intention of this review to summarize some of the important considerations in using DLS as an analytical tool for the characterization of MNPs.
Common analytical techniques and the associated range scale involved for nanoparticle sizing
Approximated working size range
Dynamic light scattering
1 nm to approximately 5 μm
Transmission electron microscopy
0.5 nm to approximately 1 μm
Atomic force microscopy
1 nm to approximately 1 μm
5 to 200 nm
10 to approximately 50 nm
Thermomagnetic measurement extracts the size distribution of an ensemble of superparamagnetic nanoparticles from zero-field cooling (ZFC) magnetic moment, mZFC(T), data based on the Néel model . This method is an indirect measurement of particle size and relies on the underlying assumption of the mathematical model used to calculate the size distribution. In addition, another limitation of this analytical method includes the magnetic field applied for ZFC measurements which must be small compared to the anisotropy field of the MNPs , and it also neglects particle-particle dipolar interactions which increase the apparent blocking temperature . This technique, however, could give a very reliable magnetic size of the nanoparticle analyzed.
Dark-field microscopy relies on direct visual inspection of the optical signal emitted from the MNP while it undergoes Brownian motion. After the trajectories of each MNP over time t are recorded, the two-dimensional mean-squared displacement <r 2 > = 4Dt is used to calculate the diffusion coefficient D for each particle. Later on, the hydrodynamic diameters can be estimated via the Stokes-Einstein equation for the diffusion coefficients calculated for individual particles, averaging over multiple time steps . Successful implementation of this technique depends on the ability to trace the particle optically by coating the MNP with a noble metal that exhibits surface Plasmon resonance within a visible wavelength. This extra synthesis step has significantly restricted the use of this technique as a standard route for sizing MNPs. The size of an MNP obtained through dark-field microscopy is normally larger than the TEM and DLS results . It should be noted that dark-field microscopy can also be employed for direct visualization of a particle flocculation event . As for AFM, besides the usual topographic analysis, magnetic imaging of a submicron-sized MNP grown on GaAs substrate has been performed with magnetic force microscopy equipment . Despite all the recent breakthroughs, sample preparation and artifact observation are still the limiting aspect for the wider use of this technology for sizing MNPs .
The particle size and size distribution can also be measured with an acoustic spectrometer which utilizes the sound pulses transmitted through a particle suspension to extract the size-related information . Based on the combined effect of absorption and scattering of acoustic energy, an acoustic sensor measures attenuation frequency spectra in the sample. This attenuation spectrum is used to calculate the particle size distribution. This technique has advantages over the light scattering method in studying samples with high polydispersity as the raw data for calculating particle size depend on only the third power of the particle size. This scenario makes contribution of the small (nano) and larger particles more even and the method potentially more sensitive to the nanoparticle content even in the very broad size distributions .
DLS, also known as photon correlation spectroscopy, is one of the most popular methods used to determine the size of MNPs. During the DLS measurement, the MNP suspension is exposed to a light beam (electromagnetic wave), and as the incident light impinges on the MNP, the direction and intensity of the light beam are both altered due to a process known as scattering . Since the MNPs are in constant random motion due to their kinetic energy, the variation of the intensity with time, therefore, contains information on that random motion and can be used to measure the diffusion coefficient of the particles . Depending on the shape of the MNP, for spherical particles, the hydrodynamic radius of the particle RH can be calculated from its diffusion coefficient by the Stokes-Einstein equation D f = kBT/ 6πηRH, where kB is the Boltzmann constant, T is the temperature of the suspension, and η is the viscosity of the surrounding media. Image analysis on the TEM micrographs gives the ‘true radius’ of the particles (though determined on a statistically small sample), and DLS provides the hydrodynamic radius on an ensemble average . The hydrodynamic radius is the radius of a sphere that has the same diffusion coefficient within the same viscous environment of the particles being measured. It is directly related to the diffusive motion of the particles.
Hydrodynamic diameter of different MNPs determined by DLS
Type of MNPs
Hydrodynamic diameter by DLS (nm)
Poly(methacrylic acid)-poly(methyl methacrylate)-poly(styrenesulfonate) triblock copolymer
Oleylamine or oleic acid
Poly(ethylene oxide)-block-poly(glutamic acid)
193 ± 7
14.7 ± 1.4
41.2 ± 0.4
16.5 ± 3.5
Poly(sodium 4-styrene sulfonate)
107.4 ± 53.7
Cetyltrimethyl ammonium bromide
Fetal bovine serum
750 ± 30
Hydroxamic and phosphonic acids
The interaction of very small particles with light defined the most fundamental observations such as why is the sky blue. From a technological perspective, this interaction also formed the underlying working principle of DLS. It is the purpose of this section to describe the mathematical analysis involved to extract size-related information from light scattering experiments.
Diameter of Fe 3 O 4 MNP determined by TEM and DLS ( Z -average)
For small-sized MNPs, the radius of curvature effect is the main contributing factor for the large difference observed on the averaged diameter from DLS and TEM. This observation has at least suggested that for any inference of layer thickness from DLS measurement, the particles with a radius much larger than the layer thickness should be employed. In this measurement, the fractional error in the layer thickness can be much larger than the fractional error in the radius with the measurement standard deviation of only 0.9 nm for TEM but at a relatively high value of 5.2 nm for DLS. At a very large MNP size of around 20 nm (bottom image of Figure 5), the Z-average hydrodynamic diameter is 23 nm larger than the TEM size. Moreover, the standard deviation of the DLS measurement of this particle also increased significantly to 14.9 nm compared to 5.2 and 5.5 nm for small- and middle-sized MNPs, respectively. This trend of increment observed in standard deviation is consistent with TEM measurement. Both the shape irregularity and polydispersity, which are the intrinsic properties that can be found in a MNP with a diameter of 20 nm or above, contribute to this observation. For a particle larger than 100 nm, other factors such as electroviscous and surface roughness effects should be taken into consideration for the interpretation of DLS results .
In DLS, the range of sample concentration for optimal measurements is highly dependent on the sample materials and their size. If the sample is too dilute, there may be not enough scattering events to make a proper measurement. On the other hand, if the sample is too concentrated, then multiple scattering can occur. Moreover, at high concentration, the particle might not be freely mobile with its spatial displacement driven solely by Brownian motion but with the strong influences of particle interactions. This scenario is especially true for the case of MNPs with interparticle magnetic dipole-dipole interactions.
For both species of particles, the upward trends of hydrodynamic diameter, which associates to the decrement of diffusion coefficient, reflect the presence of a strong interaction between the particles as MNP concentration increases. Furthermore, since the aggregation rate has a second-order dependency on particle concentration , the sample with high MNP concentration has higher tendency to aggregate, leading to the formation of large particle clusters. Therefore, the initial efforts for MNP characterization by using DLS should focus on the determination of the optimal working concentration.
As shown in Figure 7, both polyethylene glycol (PEG) 6k and PEG 10k are capable of tentatively stabilizing the MNPs in PBS for the first 24 and 48 h. Aggregation is observed with the detection of particle clusters with a diameter of more than 500 nm. After this period of relative stability, aggregation accelerated to produce micron-sized aggregates by day 3. Actually, the continuous monitoring of MNP size by DLS after this point is less meaningful as the dominating motion is the sedimentation of large aggregates . For PEG 6k and PEG 10k that have a rather low degree of polymerization, the loss of stability over a day or two could have been due to slow PEG desorption that would not be expected of larger polymers. Nevertheless, PEG 100k-coated MNPs were not as well stabilized as the PEG 6k- or PEG 10k-coated ones, despite the higher degree of polymerization that one might expect to produce greater adsorbed layer thicknesses and therefore longer-ranged steric forces. In addition to the degree of polymerization, as discussed by Golas and coworkers , the colloidal stability of polymeric stabilized MNPs is also dependent on other structural differences of the polymer employed, such as the chain architecture and the identity of the charged functional unit. In their work, DLS was used to confirm the nanoparticle suspensions that displayed the least sedimentation which was indeed stable against aggregation.
Dynamic light scattering is employed to monitor the hydrodynamic size and colloidal stability of the magnetic nanoparticles with either spherical or anisotropic structures. This analytical method cannot be employed solely to give feedbacks on the structural information; however, by combining with other electron microscopy techniques, DLS provides statistical representative data about the hydrodynamic size of nanomaterials. In situ, real-time monitoring of MNP suspension by DLS provides useful information regarding the kinetics of the aggregation process and, at the same time, gives quantitative measurement on the size of the particle clusters formed. In addition, DLS can be a powerful technique to probe the layer thickness of the macromolecules adsorbed onto the MNP. However, the interpretation of DLS data involves the interplay of a few parameters, such as the size, concentration, shape, polydispersity, and surface properties of the MNPs involved; hence, careful analysis is needed to extract the right information.
This material is based on the work supported by Research University (RU) (grant no. 1001/PJKIMIA/811219) from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Exploratory Research Grants Scheme (ERGS) (grant no. 203/PJKIMIA/6730013) from the Ministry of Higher Education of Malaysia, and eScience Fund (grant no. 205/PJKIMIA/6013412) from MOSTI Malaysia. JKL and SWL are affiliated to the Membrane Science and Technology Cluster of USM.
This article is published under license to BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.