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11.4: Synthesis of Semiconductor Nanocrystals

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  • Early work on the quantum size effect in semiconductor nanoparticles used simple metathesis reactions in the synthesis. For example, CdSe and PbS can be precipitated at ambient temperature by the reactions:

    \(\ce{CdCl2_{(aq)} + H2Se_{(g)} = CdSe_{(s)} + 2HCl_{(aq)}}\)

    \(\ce{Pb(NO3)2 + H2S_{(g)} = PbS_{(s)} + 2HNO3_{(aq)}}\)


    Complete atomistic model of a 5 nm diameter colloidal lead sulfide nanoparticle with surface passivation by oleic acid, oleyl and hydroxyl groups.

    The growth of the particles was restricted by carrying out these reactions in different matrices, such as in polymer films or the silicate cages of zeolites, and capping ligands were also sometimes used to limit particle growth. While these reactions did produce nanoparticles, in general a broad distribution of particle sizes was obtained. The particles were also unstable to Ostwald ripening - in which large particles grow at the expense of smaller ones in order to minimize the total surface energy - because of the reversibility of the acid-forming synthetic reactions in aqueous media. The lack of good samples prevented detailed studies and the development of applications for semiconductor quantum dots.

    A very important development in nanoparticle synthesis came in the early 1990's, when Murray, Norris, and Bawendi introduced the first non-aqueous, controlled growth process for II-VI semiconductor quantum dots.[5] The keys to this synthesis were (1) to use non-aqueous solvents and capping ligands to stabilize the products against ripening, (2) to carry out the reaction at high temperature to ensure good crystallinity, and (3) to separate the steps of particle nucleation and growth, and thereby obtain particles of uniform size. This procedure is illustrated below:


    The synthesis is carried out in a coordinating, high boiling solvent that is a mixture of trioctylphosphine (TOP) and trioctylphosphine oxide (TOPO). In early experiments, organometallic cadmium compounds such as diethylcadmium were used as the metal source, but it was later found that these highly toxic and pyrophoric compounds could be replaced by CdO. At the start of the reaction, a selenium source, typically bis(trimethylsilyl)selenium, [(CH3)3Si]2Se, dissolved in TOP is rapidly injected into the hot (350 °C) reaction mixture. The reaction causes a rapid burst of nanoparticle nucleation, but the temperature also drops as the cold solvent is injected and so the nucleation event ends quickly. The cooled solution now contains nanocrystal seeds. It is supersaturated in TOPO-Cd and TOP-Se, but particle growth proceeds slowly until the solution is heated again to the growth temperature, ca. 250°C. Particle growth and size-focusing occurs because small particles require less added material to grow by an amount ΔR than larger particles. This is because the volume of an added shell around a spherical seed is 4πR2ΔR, so for larger R, ΔR is smaller. Very narrow particle size distributions can be obtained under conditions of high supersaturation, where the rate of nanoparticle growth is fast relative to particle dissolution and Ostwald ripening.[6] The size distribution can then be narrowed further by adding a non-solvent such as hexane to the cooled reaction mixture. The largest particles precipitate first, followed by smaller particles. Because the nanoparticles are capped with a ligand shell of TOP, they can be re-suspended in organic solvents once they are size-separated.

    The high temperature synthesis of semiconductor quantum dots has been applied to a broad variety of materials including II-VI, III-V, and IV-VI semiconductors. Monodisperse nanoparticles of controlled shapes can be made by variants of this method. For example, it is possible to adjust the conditions so that CdSe nucleates in the zincblende polymorph as tetrahedrally shaped seeds, and then grow polar wurtzite "arms" onto each triangular face, resulting in nanocrystal tetrapods. Numerous other nanocrystal shapes such as rods, arrowheads, rice (tapered rods), and polar structures such as Janus rods can be made by variants of this technique. These shape-control strategies often involve the use of ligands that adsorb specifically to certain crystal faces and inhibit their growth. For example, hexylphosphonic acid ligands adsorb selectively to Cd-rich crystal faces and thus lead to the growth of prismatic wurtzite-phase CdSe nanocrytals.


    A second widely used method of semiconductor nanocrystal synthesis involves growth from molecular precursors and molten metal droplets, as shown in the figure at the right. The vapor-liquid-solid (VLS) and related solution-liquid-solid (SLS) growth processes rely on the fact that semiconductors such as Si, Ge, GaAs, InP, and others are soluble at high temperatures in liquid metals such as Au and Cu. The catalytic reduction of a molecule such as silicon tetrachloride (SiCl4) at the surface of a gold nanocrystal liberates HCl gas and creates a solid solution of Si in Au. The presence of Si lowers the melting point of Au, and as more SiCl4 reacts, a liquid eutectic droplet of the Si-Au alloy is formed. When this droplet becomes supersaturated in Si, a silicon nanocrystal nucleates and grows. This reaction can be performed on the surface of a macroscopic Si crystal, in which case nanocrystal "whiskers" grow from the surface, typically as single crystals and with an epitaxial orientation that is determined by the Si crystal face of the substrate. The diameter of the whiskers is controlled by the radius of the Au drops, which can be as small as a few nanometers and as large as several microns. Using this technique, "forests" of nanowires or microwires can be grown. Because the composition of the nanowire depends on the precursor being fed to the Au droplets, it is possible to make "totem pole" structures with varied compositions along the nanowire axis. Semiconductor shells can also be grown around the wires by chemical vapor deposition (CVD). The VLS process can also be adapted to complex compositions for which no molecular precursor is available by using a laser to ablate the semiconductor from a solid target.


    Epitaxial growth of silicon nanowires catalyzed by gold nanoparticles in the vapor-liquid-solid (VLS) process.

    Semiconductor nanowires made by this method are the basis of extremely sensitive biosensors, in which a molecular binding event anywhere along the wire strongly affects its electrical conductivity.[7] Nanowire and microwire arrays are also being studied as solar cell and lithium battery materials, as well as nanoscale electronic and optoelectronic devices.