Tag Archives: particles

Slow moving nanoparticles

Random track of a nanoparticle superimposed on its image generated in the microscope using a pin-hole and narrowband filter.

A couple of weeks ago I bragged about research from my group being included in a press release from the Royal Society [see post entitled ‘Press Release!‘ on November 15th, 2017].  I hate to be boring but it’s happened again.  Some research that we have been performing with the European Union’s Joint Research Centre in Ispra [see my post entitled ‘Toxic nanoparticles‘ on November 13th, 2013] has been published this morning by the Royal Society Open Science.

Our experimental measurements of the free motion of small nanoparticles in a fluid have shown that they move slower than expected.  At low concentrations, unexpectedly large groups of molecules in the form of nanoparticles up to 150-300nm in diameter behave more like an individual molecule than a particle.  Our experiments support predictions from computer simulations by other researchers, which suggest that at low concentrations the motion of small nanoparticles in a fluid might be dominated by van der Waals forces rather the thermal motion of the surrounding molecules.  At the nanoscale there is still much that we do not understand and so these findings will have potential implications for predicting nanoparticle transport, for instance in drug delivery [e.g., via the nasal passage to the central nervous system], and for understanding enhanced heat transfer in nanofluids, which is important in designing systems such as cooling for electronics, solar collectors and nuclear reactors.

Our article’s title is ‘Transition from fractional to classical Stokes-Einstein behaviour in simple fluids‘ which does not reveal much unless you are familiar with the behaviour of particles and molecules.  So, here’s a quick explanation: Robert Brown gave his name to the motion of particles suspended in a fluid after reporting the random motion or diffusion of pollen particles in water in 1828.  In 1906, Einstein postulated that the motion of a suspended particle is generated by the thermal motion of the surrounding fluid molecules.  While Stokes law relates the drag force on the particle to its size and fluid viscosity.  Hence, the Brownian motion of a particle can be described by the combined Stokes-Einstein relationship.  However, at the molecular scale, the motion of individual molecules in a fluid is dominated by van der Waals forces, which results in the size of the molecule being unimportant and the diffusion of the molecule being inversely proportional to a fractional power of the fluid viscosity; hence the term fractional Stokes-Einstein behaviour.  Nanoparticles that approach the size of large molecules are not visible in an optical microscope and so we have tracked them using a special technique based on imaging their shadow [see my post ‘Seeing the invisible‘ on October 29th, 2014].


Coglitore D, Edwardson SP, Macko P, Patterson EA, Whelan MP, Transition from fractional to classical Stokes-Einstein behaviour in simple fluids, Royal Society Open Science, 4:170507, 2017. doi:

More uncertainty about matter and energy


When I wrote about wave-particle duality and an electron possessing the characteristics of both matter and energy [see my post entitled ‘Electron uncertainty’ on July 27th, 2016], I dodged the issue of what are matter and energy.  As an engineer, I think of matter as being the solids, liquids and gases that are both manufactured and occur in nature.  We should probably add plasmas to this list, as they are created in an increasing number of engineering processes, including power generation using nuclear fission.  But maybe plasmas should be classified as energy, since they are clouds of unbounded charged particles, often electrons.   Matter is constructed from atoms and atoms from sub-atomic particles, such as electrons that can behave as particles or waves of energy.  So clearly, the boundary between matter and energy is blurred or fuzzy.  And, Einstein’s famous equation describes how energy and matter can be equated, i.e. energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared.

Engineers tend to define energy as the capacity to do work, which is fine for manufactured or generated energy, but is inadequate when thinking about the energy of sub-atomic particles, which probably is why Feynman said we don’t really know what energy is.  Most of us think about energy as the stuff that comes down an electricity cable or that we get from eating a banana.  However, Evelyn Pielou points out in her book, The Nature of Energy, that energy in nature surrounds us all of the time, not just in the atmosphere or water flowing in rivers and oceans but locked into the structure of plants and rocks.

Matter and energy are human constructs and nature does not do rigid classifications, so perhaps we should think about a plant as a highly-organised localised zone of high density energy [see my post entitled ‘Fields of flowers‘ on July 8th, 2015].  We will always be uncertain about some things and as our ability to probe the world around us improves we will find that we are no longer certain about things we thought we understood.  For instance, research has shown that Bucky balls, which are spherical fullerene molecules containing sixty carbon atoms with a mass of 720 atomic mass units, and so seem to be quite substantial bits of matter, exhibit wave-particle duality in certain conditions.

We need to learn to accept uncertainty and appreciate the opportunities it presents to us rather than seek unattainable certainty.

Note: an atomic mass unit is also known as a Dalton and is equivalent to 1.66×10-27kg


Pielou EC, The Energy of Nature, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Arndt M, Nairz O, Vos-Andreae J, Keller C, van der Zouw G & Zeilinger A, Wave-particle duality of C60 molecules, Nature 401, 680-682 (14 October 1999).


Electron uncertainty

daisyMost of us are uncomfortable with uncertainty.  Michael Faraday’s ability to ‘accept the given – certainties and uncertainties’ [see my post entitled ‘Steadiness and placidity’ on July 18th, 2016] was exceptional and perhaps is one reason he was able to make such outstanding contributions to science and engineering.  It has been said that his ‘Expts. on the production of Electricity from Magnetism, etc. etc.’ [Note 148 from Faraday’s notebooks] on August 29th 1831  began the age of electricity.  Electricity is associated with the flow of electric charge, which is often equated with the flow of electrons and electrons are subatomic particles with a negative elementary charge and a mass that is approximately 1/1836 atomic mass units.  A moving electron, and it is difficult to find a stationary one, has wave-particle duality – that is, it simultaneously has the characteristics of a particle and a wave.  So, there is uncertainty about the nature of an electron and most of us find this concept difficult to handle.

An electron is both matter and energy.  It is a particle in its materialisation as matter but a wave in its incarnation as energy.  However, this is probably too much of a reductionist description of a systemic phenomenon.  Nevertheless let’s stay with it for a moment, because it might help elucidate why the method of measurement employed in experiments with electrons influences whether our measurements reflect the behaviour of a particle or a wave.  Perhaps when we design our experiments from an energy perspective then electrons oblige by behaving as waves of energy and when we design from a matter perspective then electrons materialise as particles.

All of this leads to a pair of questions about what is matter and what is energy?  But, these are enormous questions, and even the Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman said ‘in physics today, we have no knowledge of what energy is’, so I’m going to leave them unanswered.  I’ve probably already riled enough physicists with my simplistic discussion.

Note: an atomic mass unit is also known as a Dalton and is equivalent to 1.66×10-27kg


Hamilton, J., A life of discovery: Michael Faraday, giant of the scientific revolution. New York: Random House, 2002.

Pielou EC, The Energy of Nature [the epilogue], Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Seeing the invisible

Track of the Brownian motion of a 50 nanometre diameter particle

Track of the Brownian motion of a 50 nanometre diameter particle in a fluid.

Nanoparticles are being used in a myriad of applications including sunscreen creams, sports equipment and even to study the stickiness of snot!  By definition, nanoparticles should have one dimension less than 100 nanometres, which is one thousandth of the thickness of a human hair.  Some nanoparticles are toxic to humans and so scientists are studying the interaction of nanoparticles with human cells.  However, a spherical nanoparticle is smaller than the wavelength length of visible light and so is invisible in a conventional optical microscope used by biologists.  We can view nanoparticles using a scanning electron microscope but the electron beam damages living cells so this is not a good solution.  An alternative is to adjust an optical microscope so that the nanoparticles produce caustics [see post entitled ‘Caustics’ on October 15th, 2014] many times the size of the particle.  These ‘adjustments’ involve closing an aperture to produce a pin-hole source of illumination and introducing a filter that only allows through a narrow band of light wavelengths.  An optical microscope adjusted in this way is called a ‘nanoscope’ and with the addition of a small oscillator on the microscope objective lens can be used to track nanoparticles using the technique described in last week’s post entitled ‘Holes in liquid‘.

The smallest particles that we have managed to observe using this technique were gold particles of diameter 3 nanometres , or about 1o atoms in diameter dispersed in a liquid.


Image of 3nm diameter gold particle in a conventional optical microscope (top right), in a nanoscope (bottom right) and composite images in the z-direction of the caustic formed in the nanoscope (left).

Image of 3nm diameter gold particle in a conventional optical microscope (top right), in a nanoscope (bottom right) and composite images in the z-direction of the caustic formed in the nanoscope (left).



‘Scientists use gold nanoparticles to study the stickiness of snot’ by Rachel Feldman in the Washington Post on October 9th, 2014.

J.-M. Gineste, P. Macko, E.A. Patterson, & M.P. Whelan, Three-dimensional automated nanoparticle tracking using Mie scattering in an optical microscope, Journal of Microscopy, Vol. 243, Pt 2 2011, pp. 172–178

Patterson, E.A., & Whelan, M.P., Optical signatures of small nanoparticles in a conventional microscope, Small, 4(10): 1703-1706, 2008.