A method of using ellipsometry or polarization analysis of light in total internal reflection of a surface to determine the number density of gold nanoparticles on a smooth substrate has been developed. The method can be modified to enable determination of densities of sparse distributions of nanoparticles in general, and is expected to be especially useful for measuring gold-nanoparticle-labeled biomolecules on microarrays.

Real and Imaginary Parts of complex dielectric functions were determined for bulk gold and for gold nanoparticles having various diameters.
The method is based on theoretical calculations of the ellipsometric responses of gold nanoparticles. Elements of the calculations include the following:

  • For simplicity, the gold nanoparticles are assumed to be spherical and to have the same radius.
  • The distribution of gold nanoparticles is assumed to be a sub-monolayer (that is, sparser than a monolayer).
  • The optical response of the sub-monolayer is modeled by use of a thin-island-film theory, according to which the polarizabilities parallel and perpendicular to the substrate are functions of the wavelength of light, the dielectric functions (permittivities expressed as complex functions of frequency or wavelength) of the gold and the suspending medium (in this case, the suspending medium is air), the fraction of the substrate area covered by the nanoparticles, and the radius of the nanoparticles.
  • For the purpose of the thin-island-film theory, the dielectric function of the gold nanoparticles is modeled as the known dielectric function of bulk gold plus a correction term that is necessitated by the fact that the mean free path length for electrons in gold decreases with decreasing radius, in such a manner as to cause the imaginary part of the dielectric function to increase with decreasing radius (see figure). The correction term is a function of the nanoparticle radius, the wavelength of light, the mean free path and the Fermi speed of electrons in bulk gold, the plasma frequency of gold, and the speed of light in a vacuum.

These models are used to calculate ellipsometric responses for various concentrations of gold nanoparticles having an assumed radius. The modeled data indicates distinct spectral features for both the real and the imaginary part of the dielectric function. An ellipsometric measurement would determine this distinct feature and thus can be used to measure nanoparticle concentration. By “ellipsometric responses” is meant the intensities of light measured in various polarization states as functions of the angle of incidence and the polarization states of the incident light. These calculated ellipsometric responses are used as calibration curves: Data from subsequent ellipsometric measurements on real specimens are compared with the calibration curves. The concentration of the nanoparticles on a specimen is assumed to be that of the calibration curve that most closely matches the data pertaining to that specimen.

This work was done by Srivatsa Venkatasubbarao and Lothar U Kempen of Intelligent Optical Systems, Inc. and Russell Chipman of the University of Arizona for Marshall Space Flight Center. For further information, contact Sammy Nabors, MSFC Commercialization Assistance Lead, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. MFS-32506-1