Precise sub-nm plasmonic junctions for sers within gold nanoparticle assemblies using cucurbit[n]uril ‘glue’

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Precise sub-nm plasmonic junctions for SERS within gold nanoparticle assemblies using cucurbit[n]uril ‘glue’

Richard W. Taylora, Tung-Chun Leeb, Oren A. Schermanb, Ruben Estebanc, Javier Aizpuruac, Fu Min Huanga, Jeremy J. Baumberga, Sumeet Mahajana*

aNanoPhotonics Centre, Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, CB3 0HE, U.K.

bMelville Laboratory for Polymer Synthesis, Department of Chemistry, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, CB2 1EW, U.K.

cCentro de Física de Materiales, Centro Mixto CSIC-UPV/EHU and Donostia International Physics Center (DIPC), Donostia-San Sebastián, 20018, Spain.

*To whom correspondence should be addressed, to


Cucurbit[n]urils (CB[n]) are macrocyclic host molecules with sub-nanometre dimensions capable of binding to gold surfaces. Aggregation of gold nanoparticles with CB[n] produces a repeatable, fixed and rigid inter-particle separation of 0.9 nm and thus such assemblies possess distinct and exquisitely-sensitive plasmonics. Understanding the plasmonic evolution is key to their use as powerful SERS substrates. Furthermore this unique spatial control permits fast nanoscale probing of the plasmonics of the aggregates ‘glued’ together by CBs within different kinetic regimes using simultaneous extinction and SERS measurements. The kinetic rates determine the topology of the aggregates including the constituent structural motifs and allow the identification of discrete plasmon modes which are attributed to disordered chains of increasing lengths by theoretical simulations. The CBs directly report the near-field strength of the nano-junctions they create via their own SERS, allowing calibration of the enhancement. Owing to the unique barrel-shaped geometry of CB[n] and their ability to bind ‘guest’ molecules, the aggregates afford a new type of in situ self-calibrated and reliable SERS substrate where molecules can be selectively trapped by the CB[n] and exposed to the nano-junction plasmonic field. Based on this, a powerful molecular-recognition based SERS assay is demonstrated by the selective cucurbit[n]uril host-guest complexation.

KEYWORDS: Plasmon, cucurbit[n]urils, nanoparticle, SERS, hot spot, sensing

The discovery of enormous Raman signals from roughened silver electrodes1 along with understanding of the electric field enhancement mechanism sparked the promise of powerful surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopies (SERS).2-7 In particular SERS enhancements as high as 1010-14 derived from discrete gold nanocolloid assemblies which amplify the electromagnetic field confined between closely-coupled nano-pairs,8-14 has permitted sensing of single molecules.10,15-17 The ability to reproducibly control the interstitial regions of intense field amplification (so-called ‘hot spots’) for reliable detection and identification of single molecules is a much vaunted goal of the SERS research community.

One of the most critical issues for achieving reproducible hot spots is the control of the gap size between plasmonic structures with sub-nanometre precision. Despite this, most work has concentrated more on the fabrication of the nanoparticles than control of these gaps. Control of the sub-nanometre critical dimension over large areas to create such hot spots uniformly is non-trivial. Even more difficult is placing analyte molecules precisely within these junctions of ultra-high field enhancement. The simplest and most studied system for the generation of such hot spots is through aggregation of nanoparticle colloids. Although a huge understanding of colloid aggregates exists due to numerous experimental, theoretical, and computational studies over the past 30 years18-25 their wide-spread adoption as a practical SERS substrate has so-far been hindered by irreproducible performance.26-27 For example, aggregates formed through the ‘salting’ of citrate-capped colloids tend to display poor control over size, gap and topology, while organic monolayer-capped assemblies exhibit inconsistent and broad particle spacing26,29 (Fig. 1a) and supposedly ‘rigid’ linking molecules such as DNA, biotin-streptavidin, or multivalent thiols (Fig. 1b)30-34 restrict access to the hot spot they define and have not been rigid in practice (they do not show the features we report here).

Despite this vast amount of work on coagulation aggregates, crucially control over both particle spacing and the placement of molecules in these hot spots whilst linking the SERS to plasmon modes by simultaneous measurements, has not been carried out. CB[5] is a rigid barrel shaped molecule (Fig. 1c) which binds to the Au surface through the carbonyl groups at the portals,35-36 and thus fixes the separation between gold nanoparticles at a precise 0.9 nm. The portal separation is the same amongst all CB[n]s.37-39 We demonstrate here the reproducible plasmonics of AuNP:CB[5] aggregates arising due to the fixed inter-particle spacing due to binding by CBs. Both CB[5] and CB[7] are water soluble and Raman active. Thus CB[n] not only acts to define the hot spot junction but, by also being Raman active5, allows local reporting of the field confinement within the center of the junction via SERS. Furthermore, the internal cavity common to all cucurbit[n]urils is known to form host-guest complexes with a range of hydrophobic guests,37-39 thus, when incorporated in such nano-aggregates, opens the exciting possibility of positioning the guests in the very center of the intense confined electric field (‘hot spot’) for optimal sensing. Specificity for guest binding can be achieved through selection of a CB[n] with an appropriately-sized cavity or a guest with compatible chemistry. Such exquisite control over both the creation of numerous exact separations and precise electromagnetic modes, and the positioning of analyte molecules is unprecedented and has not been demonstrated in any other system for SERS.

Although the ability of CB[n] to induce conglomeration of AuNP has been shown35,36 crucially neither the in situ plasmonic evolution of the aggregates nor their utilization in SERS has been reported. We report the kinetics of plasmonic evolution recorded spectroscopically on the millisecond time scale which is found to be consistent with known reaction-limited and diffusion-limited colloidal growth (RLCA and DLCA) models.36-42 The discrete nature of the optical coupling between the NPs in the aggregate allows for a new approach to real time reporting of local aggregate growth in the far-field. Most importantly we find that distinct structural entities comprising the aggregates support the different plasmon modes and provide spectral, theoretical and microscopic evidence for them. We also relate the kinetics of the SERS intensity, reported by the incorporated CBs themselves, to that of the evolving plasmon mode by simultaneous extinction and Raman measurements. This allows us to determine the corresponding near-field properties of the aggregates in time. Furthermore the well-defined plasmon modes arising due to the precise gap generated by CBs, tune into resonance with common Raman excitation wavelengths. In this paper we report the kinetic evolution of different plasmon modes resulting from CB[5]-mediated assembly of AuNPs, the relationship of the topology of the aggregates and their constituent structural entities to the plasmon modes which are confirmed by simulations, and the consequent utilization of CBs as SERS reporters for a self-calibrated in situ SERS substrate. Finally we successfully demonstrate the first utilization of these CB[n] mediated SERS substrates for selective host-guest detection.

Figure 1. (a,b) Current strategies to generate coagulate of AuNP produce inconsistent and uncontrollable inter-particle spacing, through for example (a) organic capped colloids or (b) DNA-mediated linkers. (c) Cucurbit[5]uril composed of five cyclically arranged glycol-uril units, with hydrophobic internal cavity and polar carbonyl portals that bind to the Au surface. (d) AuNPs glued into a dimer by CB[n] with portal-to-portal separation rigidly fixed at 0.9 nm. No other binding configuration possible. (e) CB[n] cavity supports selective guest-sequestration leading to the use of AuNP:CB[n] aggregates for molecular-recognition-based SERS assays where the CB[n] defines the nanojunctions.


The rich host-guest chemistry of cucurbit[n]urils along with their rigid geometry and ability to bind to gold make them a prime candidate for mediating aggregation of nanoparticles to form ‘accessible hot spots’ for use in SERS. In order to understand the effect of CB[5] on the plasmonics of aggregation we studied the resulting change in optical extinction, in a time-resolved manner, as a function of CB[5] concentration. This modifies the CB surface coverage on the AuNPs (always here extremely sparse) which determines the likelihood of a collision resulting in coagulation between two CB-capped AuNPs, and hence the rate of global aggregation. While the detailed results we report here are for 20 nm AuNPs, similar results are seen for diameters from 10-100 nm AuNPs.

Time-resolved extinction of AuNP:CB[5] assemblies.

Time-resolved UV-Vis spectra representative of the two main kinetic growth regimes at AuNP:CB[5] ratios of 1:80 and 1:60 respectively, are shown in Figs. 2a,b. Higher CB[5] ratios correspond to diffusion-limited growth of the AuNPs since their sticking probability is high and collisions more likely to result in successful coagulation. For low concentrations of CB[5] the aggregation is reaction-limited as fewer collisions result in aggregation. The sub-millisecond acquisition of the evolving spectra are continued over two hours (progressing according to the arrows). Spectral features for both kinetic growth regimes are discussed below. However it is apparent that the information is rather different from that provided by quasi-static light scattering which under model assumptions gives the fractal dimension of the aggregates43 and dynamic light scattering which under further assumptions suggests the cluster anisotropy.41,42 The spectra instead here reveal the smallest-scale features of the aggregates from the coupling of particles.

Figure 2. (a,b) Time-resolved extinction spectra of aggregating AuNP:CB[5] samples for (a) DLCA (1:80) and (b) RLCA (1:60) kinetics (arrows guide the eye). Spectra acquired at 1min intervals for 2 hours. (c,d) Difference spectra obtained from (a,b) by removing the isolated single AuNP contributions. Extinction difference fits best to sum of two Lorentzian modes (dashed) which grow with time. (e) Extracted intensity with time of dimer-like mode at 590 nm (blue, light-blue for DLCA,RLCA) and coupled chain mode (green, light-green for DLCA, RLCA). (f) Measured plasmon resonance of CB[5]-coupled dimer-like mode as a function of AuNP diameter, with the theoretical simulations performed using the Boundary Element Method using the dielectric function for Au from Johnson and Christy.44 Simulations include size-corrections and assumes a particle separation of 0.9 nm. The electric field is polarized parallel to the inter-particle axis.

Aggregation of the AuNPs in the DLCA regime (Fig. 2a) shows extinction spectra which rapidly decrease and broaden the surface plasmon resonance (SPR) band of the AuNP at 525 nm45-46 as well as the appearance of a strong secondary broad band centered at 650 nm, arising from the aggregation. Over time this aggregate band red-shifts to a maximum of 690 nm. Aggregation proceeding in the RLCA regime (1:60, Fig. 2b) over two hours follows a similar but much slower growth curve corresponding to the first two minutes of the 1:80 AuNP:CB[5] aggregate. Notably, the same plasmonic properties are achieved through different growth routes which is due to the reproducible nature of the inter-particle mediation.

To isolate the 600–700 nm aggregate plasmon band in greater detail, the difference spectra of Fig. 2a,b are obtained by subtracting proportionate amounts of the single AuNP spectra to give Fig. 2c,d. Decomposition of the broad aggregate band for both the DLCA and RLCA spectra reveals a superposition of two distinct modes centered at 590 and ~650 nm. Fitting to two Lorenztian functions supports this observation, and shows that the mode at 590 nm remains stationary in position whilst the second mode around 650 nm red-shifts during aggregation (arrows track the peak). In the case of DLCA, the initial aggregate mode grows rapidly and saturates when the 590 nm mode saturates in intensity (Fig. 2e). Subsequently the resonance at 650 nm then rapidly red-shifts, whilst the mode at 590 nm remains fixed in position. We believe this change in spectral behavior corresponds to a change in the dominant growth mechanism in solution, from the rapid formation of dimers and short chains to the growth of larger size aggregates following the constant DLCA reaction kernel.42 Time-resolving the evolving aggregate through TEM micrographs elucidates the topological origins of the extinction spectra for both kinetic regimes.

Relating topology with optical properties. Insight into the size and topology of the grown AuNP:CB[5] aggregates is provided by TEM images obtained from aliquots extracted from the AuNP:CB[5] 1:80 and 1:60 aggregating solution at different points in time. The samples are dried immediately onto Holey® carbon grids (Fig.3). By measuring the optical extinction in solution during growth, comparisons can be made between the far-field optics and local aggregate structure.

Figure 3. Optical extinction of 1:80 and 1:60 AuNP:CB[5] solutions with increasing time. TEM images from typical aggregation products formed at the indicated time elapsed. Differences in topology correspond to DLCA (left) and RLCA (right) regimes.

The TEM of 1:80 AuNP:CB[5] at 1 minute reveals the formation of open, elongated chain-like structures. These are consistent with DLCA growth since the colliding particles are unable to reach the very centre of growing clusters, instead colliding with higher probability with the outermost structures. Even after 30 minutes the clusters remain sparse and open, while after two hours quasi-fractal networks on the micron-scale form which is in agreement with the DLCA growth model. A different behavior is apparent for 1:60 AuNP:CB[5] in which tight compact clusters form and slowly grow by RLCA. Throughout the average particle spacing is ~0.9 nm as determined from analysis of TEM images (supporting information Fig. S1). This clearly indicates that CB[5] is an effective mediator to bring about aggregation and successfully controls the gap size defined by the molecular geometry (as also shown by the distinct plasmonic modes).

Using these topological insights we are able to explain the plasmonic evolution within the kinetic models. The sub-nanometer spacing within the aggregates introduces additional electromagnetic interactions between closely-spaced AuNPs, resulting in a shift in their resonance wavelength that increases with the number and proximity of neighbouring AuNPs up to a saturation limit.47-51 The resonance mode at 590 nm is identified as the longitudinal plasmon resonance of a 20 nm particle dimer with a separation of ~1 nm, in close agreement with our theoretical simulations and consistent with the TEM of CB[5] mediated AuNP aggregates. This mode scales as theoretically expected with AuNP diameter (Fig. 2f). After a short time these dimers are embedded in larger clusters. However our simulations of kinked chains reveal that component dimers may be locally excited within larger disordered chain assemblies [see supporting information Fig. S2]. The well-defined ‘dimer’ mode thus arises from many precisely equivalent CB[5]-defined junctions. The broader mode at 650 nm is identified as a many-body coupled mode consistent with mutual coupling in the nanochains which progressively undergo resonance shifts with increasing numbers of appropriately illuminated constituent nanoparticles. Theory predicts an inherent saturation in inter-particle coupling after ~10 NPs within nanochains, leading to a saturation of the red-shift which is indeed seen experimentally for DLCA aggregates. Surprisingly, our simulations reveal that non-linear disordered chains support modes similar to those of straight chains [see supporting information Fig.S2] implying the model introduced here is robust to structural imperfections. The TEM images show DLCA aggregates to be composed of such chain-like structures, in agreement with the spectral identification of this chain mode. Finally at long times the formation of micron-sized aggregates at the λ-scale are seen, and the extinction spectra show a rapidly-growing near infrared tail whose origin is currently poorly understood.52-55 We identify the mode still remaining near the isolated AuNP resonance at 525 nm as emerging from the transverse mode (with light polarized across the chains).

This precisely-spaced CB[5]:AuNP system allows far-field interrogation of nanoscale growth with millisecond acquisition times. Existing techniques to probe aggregate growth such as dynamic and static light scattering are only able to reveal an ensemble-average hydrodynamic radius and fractal parameter – a measure of the large-scale aggregate topology over a much longer acquisition time. The data presented here reveal that in-situ study of local growth is possible, with high sensitivity to nanoscale architecture. In addition to elucidation of local structure, the concentration of CB[5] has a profound effect on the growth rate and redshift of aggregate plasmon peaks under both reaction-limited and diffusion-limited aggregation regimes.

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