Adsorbed Triblock Copolymers Deliver
Reactive Iron Nanoparticles to the
Navid Saleh,†Tanapon Phenrat,†Kevin Sirk,‡Bruno Dufour,§Jeongbin Ok,§
Traian Sarbu,§Krzysztof Matyjaszewski,§Robert D. Tilton,‡,|and
Gregory V. Lowry*,†
Department of CiVil & EnVironmental Engineering,
Department of Chemical Engineering, Department of Chemistry, and
Department of Biomedical Engineering, Carnegie Mellon UniVersity,
Pittsburgh, PennsylVania 15213-3890
Received September 12, 2005; Revised Manuscript Received October 31, 2005
Reactive zero valent iron nanoparticles can degrade toxic nonaqueous phase liquids (NAPL) rapidly in contaminated groundwater to nontoxic
products in situ, provided they can be delivered preferentially to the NAPL/water (oil/water) interface. This study demonstrates the ability of
novel triblock copolymers to modify the nanoiron surface chemistry in a way that both promotes their colloidal stability in aqueous suspension
and drives their adsorption to the oil/water interface. The ability of the copolymers to drive adsorption is demonstrated by the ability of
copolymer-modified iron nanoparticles, but not the unmodified iron nanoparticles, to stabilize oil-in-water emulsions.
Extensive efforts have been made in the past few decades
to synthesize and characterize novel nanoparticles with
unique reactivity and functions.1Engineering applications
employing these novel nanomaterials have lagged their
development because they are difficult to process. For
example, they may not be readily dispersible in either
aqueous or organic solvents or otherwise rapidly aggregate
in suspension because of high surface energy and attractive
van der Waals forces2,3(e.g., carbon nanotubes are not readily
dispersible in water4). Furthermore, it is difficult to deliver
them to the specific regions where they are needed (e.g., for
drug delivery5). To make use of the many types of nano-
particles that have been and will continue to be developed,
methods are needed to prepare colloidally stable suspensions
that are readily dispersible in the desired solvent and have
the ability to target specific chemical environments where
their actions are desirable. Recent advances in functionalizing
the surfaces of iron-based nanoparticles are promising, and
particles can now target cell-specific receptors such as glioma
cells6and can form stable colloidal suspensions in both
organic and aqueous solvents.7Polymer coatings are also
used to provide the targeted delivery of drugs to specific
receptors.8Further, surface functionalization of nanoparticles
promotes their self-assembly at liquid-liquid interfaces9,10
(e.g., as in Pickering emulsions11,12). Similar approaches can
also benefit environmental applications of nanotechnology.
The remediation of chlorinated organic-contaminated
groundwater using metallic or bimetallic reactive nanopar-
ticles is one environmental nanotechnology application13-16
that could benefit from surface functionalization techniques.
Groundwater contamination by chlorinated organic solvents
(e.g., trichloroethene) is a particularly vexing and persistent
environmental and human health concern.17The contamina-
tion source is most often a chlorinated solvent that is present
in the groundwater aquifer deep below the ground surface
as a separate water-immiscible phase. This neat oil phase,
commonly referred to as a nonaqueous phase liquid or
NAPL, slowly dissolves and acts as a constant and very long-
term (hundreds of years) groundwater contamination source.
Conventional remediation methods (e.g., pump and treat or
permeable reactive barriers18) and novel methods based on
iron nanoparticle injection into aquifers15address the dis-
solved contaminant plume and are not efficient. Directly
attacking and removing the NAPL source is preferable.
To be effective for groundwater remediation, the iron
nanoparticles not only must be dispersible in water under
varying pH and ionic strength conditions and transportable
through a water-saturated porous matrix but also must have
an affinity for the NAPL/water interface such that the
particles preferentially accumulate at this interface where they
* Corresponding author. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
†Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering.
‡Department of Chemical Engineering.
§Department of Chemistry.
|Department of Biomedical Engineering.
Vol. 5, No. 12
10.1021/nl0518268 CCC: $30.25
Published on Web 11/15/2005
© 2005 American Chemical Society
will degrade the NAPL most efficiently. Protecting nano-
particles from rapid flocculation using surfactant or poly-
electrolyte coatings is a well-established technique.19,20The
coatings provide strong electrostatic and/or electrosteric
repulsions that dominate over attractive van der Waals forces
between particles.20,21Because surfactant adsorption is readily
reversible, it has limited applicability for environmental
applications where injected nanoparticles must eventually be
transported through surfactant-free water where the surfactant
will desorb. In contrast, adsorption is essentially an irrevers-
ible process for high molecular weight polymers.22-24
Polymers can be grafted onto the particle surface via covalent
bonds or physical adsorption onto the nanoparticle surfaces
or polymers can be grafted from the particle surfaces.7,11,25-28
The former is a straightforward technique.21The latter uses
atom transfer radical polymerization (ATRP)29,30to synthe-
size a very dense polymer brush layer from initiators that
are covalently bound to the nanoparticle surfaces. Adsorbing
or grafting polymers onto the nanoparticles is a less time-
and material-intensive procedure than growing polymers
from the particles and is desirable, especially if physical
adsorption of polymers provides a surface coating with
polymer densities sufficient for the intended task.
We describe here the preparation, characterization, and
NAPL/water targeting ability of a novel organic-inorganic
reactive nanoparticle system that forms colloidally stable
suspensions in water and whose amphiphilicity also provides
the ability to target the NAPL/water interface. The effect of
polymer architecture on colloidal stability in water is also
presented. The hybrid nanoparticles are prepared using a
multistep process where a commercially available reactive
Fe0/Fe3O4core-shell nanoparticle (Toda Kyogo, Japan) is
modified with a novel triblock copolymer. The system is
highly flexible such that metal oxide nanoparticles with
different properties could also be used as the reactive core.
The Fe0/Fe3O4 “reactive nanoiron particles” (RNIP) are
synthesized from the reduction of Fe oxides to form Fe0,
followed by partial oxidation through exposure to water to
yield a stable Fe3O4shell.31The magnetite shell of the particle
protects the Fe0core from oxidizing too rapidly and provides
a stable nonreactive surface that we use for subsequent
modification. At ambient conditions in water, the Fe0core
is oxidized to Fe3O4 by the target contaminants such as
trichloroethylene (TCE), which is reduced to nontoxic
nonchlorinated products such as acetylene or ethane.14In a
1 mM NaHCO3solution (pH ) 7.4), the Fe0/Fe3O4particles
range in size from 100 to 200 nm as determined by dynamic
light scattering (Figure 1) and have a measured electro-
phoretic mobility of -2.3 ( 0.15 µmcm/Vs (Table 1).
Design and ATRP Synthesis of Targeting Triblock
Copolymers. Two polymer architectures were used (see
Table 1, where subscripts denote block degrees of polym-
erization). The architecture of the poly(methacrylic acid)-
triblock copolymer (Figure 2) was designed to provide
aqueous colloidal stability and sufficient amphiphilicity to
anchor the particles at the NAPL/water interface. Polycar-
boxylic acids adsorb strongly to iron oxide surfaces.32-34
Thus, the poly(methacrylic acid) (PMAA) block serves to
anchor the triblock copolymers to the magnetite shell.
Hydrophobic attractions arising from the poly(methyl meth-
acrylate) (PMMA) block provide the strong affinity to the
NAPL and create a low polarity region that hinders water
access to the RNIP with the goal of minimizing iron
nanoparticle oxidation during transport in the soil before it
Figure 1. DLS intensity data for bare and modified iron nano-
Figure 2. Hydrophobic-hydrophilic triblock copolymers contain-
ing a short PMAA anchoring group (left), PMMA hydrophobic
block (middle), and a hydrophilic sulfonated polystyrene block
Electrophoretic Mobility Measured in a 1 mM NaHCO3Solution
(pH ) 7.4)
Polymer Properties and Mean DLS Particle Sizes and
146 ( 4
178 ( 11
-2.3 ( 0.15
-3.82 ( 0.16 56 100
212 ( 21
-3.14 ( 0.07
aMeasured before sulfonation.bPolydispersity index.
Nano Lett., Vol. 5, No. 12, 2005
reaches the NAPL. (The barrier properties of this block have
not yet been investigated.) The strong polyanion poly-
(styrenesulfonate) (PSS) block serves to provide strong
electrosteric interparticle repulsions that promote colloidal
stability and electrosteric repulsion from the negatively
charged surfaces (e.g., Fe and Mn oxides, natural organic
matter) that are predominant in the subsurface at near neutral
pH. The functioning of this triblock copolymer is illustrated
schematically in Figure 3. In water, the PMMA block is
collapsed, while the extended PSS block provides electros-
teric protection. At the NAPL/water interface, the PMMA
block swells in the organic solvent and anchors the particle
at the interface. PSS solubility in the organic phase is too
weak to allow full passage of the nanoparticle through the
interface into the bulk NAPL phase.
The designed triblock copolymers were prepared using the
general method developed by Ok and co-workers (2005).35
First, a triblock copolymer [poly(tert-butyl methacrylate)]-
[poly(methyl methacrylate)]-[polystyrene] was synthesized
by atom transfer radical polymerization (ATRP).30The
preparation is described in the Supporting Information. The
molecular weight and polydispersity index (PDI) of the final
triblock copolymer and of each intermediate (co)-polymer
were analyzed by gel permeation chromatography (GPC) and
are also provided in the Supporting Information. The PDI
of each triblock copolymer was between 1.2 and 1.6 (Table
1). This polymer was then converted to [poly(methacrylic
via simultaneous hydrolysis of the tert-butyl group and
sulfonation of polystyrene using acetyl sulfate, which allows
a high degree of modification.36
The triblock copolymers are physisorbed to the surfaces
of the Fe0/Fe3O4nanoparticles by adding an aqueous slurry
of nanoparticles to a 2 g/L polymer solution containing 1
mM NaHCO3as the background electrolyte (pH ) 7.4). The
mixture is sonicated using an ultrasonic probe for 30 min
followed by gentle end-over-end rotation for 72 h. The
suspensions are then centrifuged and washed multiple times
to remove any excess nonadsorbed polymer from the system.
The same procedure was used for control experiments using
PSS poly(sodium 4-styrenesulfonate) homopolymer (Aldrich)
with degrees of polymerization of 340 and 970 or with a
poly(butyl methacrylate)-block-poly(styrene sulfonate) diblock
copolymer (PBMA43-PSS811) that omitted the PMAA block.
The sizes and electrophoretic mobilities of bare and
polymer-modified particles were measured in dilute (10-3
wt %) suspensions using a Malvern Zetasizer Nano ZS (Table
1). The size distribution is reported as the distribution of
hydrodynamic diameters, assuming spherical particles. The
colloidal stability of the nanoparticles was determined by
measuring the sedimentation rate of the nanoparticle suspen-
sions (Figure 4). The optical density (λ ) 508 nm) of 0.08
wt % suspensions was monitored for 2.5 h in a UV-vis
spectrophotometer. The dispersions were shaken gently by
hand immediately prior to the flocculation/sedimentation
Nanoparticle Size Distribution. Unmodified RNIP sus-
pensions are polydisperse, with particle diameters in the
100-200-nm size range. This is 2-10 times larger than the
primary particle size of RNIP observed by TEM.14,37It is
possible that preexisting aggregates were not completely
dispersed during sonication. The average hydrodynamic
diameter of polymer-modified RNIP increases by approxi-
mately 30-50 nm, an increment that is consistent with the
expected brush thickness for the triblock copolymers having
Figure 3. (a) Polyelectrolyte modified iron nanoparticles and (b) proposed polymer layer response at DNAPL/water interface.
nanoparticle dispersions (0.08 wt %) in water. The PSS340 ho-
mopolymer and the PBMA43-PSS811diblock lie between the PSS970
homopolymer and PMAA42-PMMA26-PSS462and are not shown
Sedimentation curves for bare and modified iron
Nano Lett., Vol. 5, No. 12, 20052491
the PSS degrees of polymerization used here.38Sample
polydispersity precludes a definitive determination of the
polymer layer thickness. The small scattering peak in the
10-30-nm range appeared only for the PMAA48-PMMA17-
PSS650-modified samples (Figure 1). It matches the size
measured in particle-free solutions of this polymer, suggest-
ing that nonadsorbed polymer removal from this sample was
Effect of Polymer Coatings on Electrophoretic Mobility
and Colloidal Stability. Without surface modification, RNIP
particles rapidly flocculate and sediment from solution
(Figure 4) because of strong short-range van der Waals
interactions and other long-range forces attributable to the
magnetic properties of Fe3O4.39Modification by each poly-
mer increased the electrophoretic mobility of the particles
(Table 1) and increased the stability of the suspensions
relative to bare RNIP significantly (Figure 4). The suspension
stability increased as the PSS block degree of polymerization
increased from 462 to 650, without a corresponding increase
in the electrophoretic mobility. Thus, the larger PSS block
of PMAA48-PMMA17-PSS650provided stronger electros-
teric repulsions and better stability improvement than
PMAA42-PMMA26-PSS462, as would be expected for these
polymers that are otherwise quite similar to each other.40,41
Particles modified with PSS homopolymers or with PBMA43-
PSS811were more stable than bare RNIP, but less stable than
the triblock copolymers (Figure 4). This indicates that PSS
homopolymers and the diblock do adsorb to RNIP to some
degree but in a configuration that is less effective for colloidal
stabilization than the triblock copolymers that contain the
PMAA anchor block.
NAPL/Water Interfacial Targeting. In addition to im-
proving RNIP colloidal stability, these amphiphilic copoly-
mers also drive RNIP adsorption to the NAPL/water
interface. This was demonstrated by emulsification experi-
ments, following procedures described by Saleh and co-
workers for preparing Pickering emulsions with PSS-
modified silica nanoparticles.11TCE, a DNAPL (denser than
water nonaqueous phase liquid), and dodecane, a LNAPL
(lighter than water nonaqueous phase liquid) were emulsified
in the presence of polymer-modified RNIP particle suspen-
sions. Successful emulsification was achieved using either
“raw” polymer-modified RNIP suspensions that included
both the stably suspended particles and the larger aggregates
that would ordinarily sediment rapidly, as well as “fraction-
ated” suspensions containing only the most highly stable
suspension that remained over a sedimented particle bed
(Figure 5). Both polymers were effective surface modifiers.
Extremely stable oil-in-water Pickering emulsions were
formed with the polymer-coated RNIP suspensions. Emul-
sions prepared with RNIP coated by adsorbed PMAA42-
PMMA26-PSS462have been stable for over six months. The
presence of an oil-in-water emulsion was verified by the drop
test, that is, a drop of emulsion sample readily mixed with
excess water and was therefore not oil-continuous. The black
appearance of the emulsion phase and the clarity of the
excess water phase made it apparent that the emulsion
contained nearly all of the RNIP. The equal emulsification
effectiveness of raw and fractionated polymer-modified RNIP
suspensions indicates that particle preflocculation is not the
critical factor in the emulsion stability for this system.42To
verify that emulsification was due to particle adsorption
rather than free polymer adsorption, we ran emulsification
experiments with the supernatant of a polymer-modified
RNIP sample that had been ultracentrifuged. This superna-
tant, which would contain the free polymer that would have
Figure 5. Micrographs of emulsified TCE (a-b) and dodecane (c) droplets in water stabilized by raw PMAA42-PMMA26-PSS462triblock
copolymer-modified iron nanoparticles and TCE (d) by fractionated PMAA42-PMMA26-PSS462 triblock copolymer-modified iron
Nano Lett., Vol. 5, No. 12, 2005
coexisted with the RNIP suspension, produced no emulsi-
fication. Thus, these are true Pickering emulsions, stabilized
by particle adsorption at the oil-water interface. Control
experiments using bare RNIP or RNIP modified with PSS
homopolymers or with a PBMA43-PSS811diblock copolymer
(i.e., no PMAA) did not form an emulsion phase, indicating
that the adsorbed triblock copolymers and the specific
triblock architecture used were essential for RNIP adsorption
to the oil-water interface.
Emulsions prepared with 0.3 wt % suspensions of
PMAA42-PMMA26-PSS462 triblock-modified RNIP con-
tained a bimodal distribution of stable TCE-in-water emul-
sion droplets. Most droplets ranged from 32 to 44 µm in
diameter (Figure 5a), but a smaller number of larger droplets
with diameters of 440-500 µm (Figure 5b) coexisted with
the smaller droplets. Under the same conditions, emulsified
dodecane droplets ranged in size from 5 to 50 µm, indicating
that the properties of the NAPL phase affect the emulsion
droplet size (Figure 5c). The emulsion droplets formed using
the fractionated polymer-modified RNIP suspension had
smaller diameters, ranging from 5 to 20 µm (Figure 5d). The
narrow size distribution of emulsion droplets is typical of
stable Pickering emulsions.11
Figure 5a shows that a distinct shell of aggregated iron
nanoparticles surrounds the TCE droplets. The flocculated
particles surrounding the emulsion droplets appear to form
dendritic structures, and the emulsion droplets are held apart
by these aggregates of particles. The reasons for the
formation of the dendritic structures are not firmly established
but may be due to strong particle-particle affinity because
of their high Hamaker constant, bridging by the polymer
chains, or long-range magnetic attractions between the
particles.43,44The width of the aggregated nanoiron shells
around the droplets is approximately 1 µm, indicating that
they are approximately 5-10 particles thick. Nanoiron was
not found inside the emulsion droplets, which is consistent
with the facts that the emulsion was of the oil-in-water type
and that the polymer-coated nanoparticles are not dispersible
in pure TCE or dodecane. The ability of these particles to
form a highly stable emulsion phase demonstrates the ability
of amphiphilic triblock copolymer modified iron nanopar-
ticles to preferentially localize at the oil (DNAPL or
Physisorbed layers of amphiphilic PMAA-block-PMMA-
block-PSS triblock copolymers improve the colloidal stability
of Fe0/Fe3O4nanoparticles in water and drive them to adsorb
at the oil/water interface. This satisfies two requirements for
the development of a polymeric targeted reactive nanoiron
delivery system for the remediation of chlorinated solvent-
contaminated groundwater. The effect of these triblock
copolymers on nanoparticle transport through model saturated
sand columns will be described elsewhere.45The flexibility
of the triblock copolymer synthesis enables systematic
variations in polymer architecture in order to engineer the
dispersion stability and targeting properties of nanoiron
suspensions for different application environments.
Acknowledgment. This research was funded by the
Office of Science (BER), U.S. Department of Energy, grant
no. DE-FG07-02ER63507, the U.S. EPA (R830898), and the
NSF (CTS-0521721). Although the research described in this
paper has been funded by the United States Environmental
Protection Agency, it has not been subjected to the Agency’s
required peer and policy review and therefore does not
necessarily reflect the views of the Agency, and no official
endorsement should be inferred. Any opinions, findings, and
conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material
are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the
views of the Department of Energy. We thank all of the
project team at CMU for insightful and helpful discussions.
Supporting Information Available: Description of the
polymer synthesis using ATRP and the emulsion preparation
and stability for copolymers and homopolymers. This mate-
rial is available free of charge via the Internet at http://
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