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Matrix Sputtering Method: A Novel Physical Approach for Photoluminescent Noble Metal Nanoclusters

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Division of Materials Science and Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, Hokkaido University, Kita 13 Nishi 8, Kita-ku, Sapporo, Hokkaido 060-8628, Japan
Cite this: Acc. Chem. Res. 2017, 50, 12, 2986–2995
Publication Date (Web):November 30, 2017
Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

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    Noble metal nanoclusters are believed to be the transition between single metal atoms, which show distinct optical properties, and metal nanoparticles, which show characteristic plasmon absorbance. The interesting properties of these materials emerge when the particle size is well below 2 nm, such as photoluminescence, which has potential application particularly in biomedical fields. These photoluminescent ultrasmall nanoclusters are typically produced by chemical reduction, which limits their practical application because of the inherent toxicity of the reagents used in this method. Thus, alternative strategies are sought, particularly in terms of physical approaches, which are known as “greener alternatives,” to produce high-purity materials at high yields. Thus, a new approach using the sputtering technique was developed. This method was initially used to produce thin films using solid substrates; now it can be applied even with liquid substrates such as ionic liquids or polyethylene glycol as long as these liquids have a low vapor pressure. This revolutionary development has opened up new areas of research, particularly for the synthesis of colloidal nanoparticles with dimensions below 10 nm. We are among the first to apply the sputtering technique to the physical synthesis of photoluminescent noble metal nanoclusters. Although typical sputtering systems have relied on the effect of surface composition and viscosity of the liquid matrix on controlling particle diameters, which only resulted in diameters ca. 3–10 nm, that were all plasmonic, our new approach introduced thiol molecules as stabilizers inspired from chemical methods. In the chemical syntheses of metal nanoparticles, controlling the concentration ratio between metal ions and stabilizing reagents is a possible means of systematic size control. However, it was not clear whether this would be applicable in a sputtering system. Our latest results showed that we were able to generically produce a variety of photoluminescent monometallic nanoclusters of Au, Ag, and Cu, all of which showed stable emission in both solution and solid form via our matrix sputtering method with the induction of cationic-, neutral-, and anionic-charged thiol ligands. We also succeeded in synthesizing photoluminescent bimetallic Au–Ag nanoclusters that showed tunable emission within the UV–NIR region by controlling the composition of the atomic ratio by a double-target sputtering technique. Most importantly, we have revealed the formation mechanism of these unique photoluminescent nanoclusters by sputtering, which had relatively larger diameters (ca. 1–3 nm) as determined using TEM and stronger emission quantum yield (max. 16.1%) as compared to typical photoluminescent nanoclusters prepared by chemical means. We believe the high tunability of sputtering systems presented here has significant advantages for creating novel photoluminescent nanoclusters as a complementary strategy to common chemical methods. This Account highlights our journey toward understanding the photophysical properties and formation mechanism of photoluminescent noble metal nanoclusters via the sputtering method, a novel strategy that will contribute widely to the body of scientific knowledge of metal nanoparticles and nanoclusters.

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