Electron tomography has become a commonly used tool to investigate the three-dimensional (3D) structure of nanomaterials, including colloidal nanoparticle assemblies. However, electron microscopy is typically carried out under high vacuum conditions. Therefore, pre-treatment sample preparation is needed for assemblies obtained by (wet) colloid chemistry methods, including solvent evaporation and deposition on a solid TEM support. As a result of this procedure, changes are consistently imposed on the actual nanoparticle organization. Therefore, we propose herein the application of electron tomography of nanoparticle assemblies while in their original colloidal liquid environment. To address the challenges related to electron tomography in liquid, we devised a method that combines fast data acquisition in a commercial liquid-TEM cell, with a dedicated alignment and reconstruction workflow. We present the application of this method to two different systems, which exemplify the difference between conventional and liquid tomography, depending on the nature of the protecting ligands. 3D reconstructions of assemblies comprising polystyrene-capped Au nanoparticles encapsulated in polymeric shells revealed less compact and more distorted configurations for experiments performed in a liquid medium compared to their dried counterparts. On the other hand, quantitative analysis of the surface-to-surface distance of self-assembled Au nanorods in water agrees with previously reported dimensions of the ligand layers surrounding the nanorods, which are in much closer contact when in similar but dried assemblies. This study, therefore, emphasizes the importance of developing high-resolution characterization tools that preserve the native environment of colloidal nanostructures.


Arenas Esteban, D., Wang, D., Kadu, A., Olluyn, N., A. Sánchez Iglesias,, Gomez Perez, A., … Bals, S. (2023). Liquid phase fast electron tomography unravels the true 3D structure of colloidal assemblies. doi:10.48550/arXiv.2311.05309