Colloidally prepared nanocrystals of transparent conducting oxide (TCO) semiconductors have emerged in the past decade as an exciting new class of plasmonic materials. In recent years, there has been tremendous progress in developing synthetic methods for the growth of these nanocrystals, basic characterization of their properties, and their successful integration into optoelectronic and electrochemical devices. However, many fundamental questions remain about the physics of localized surface plasmon resonance (LSPR) in these materials, and how their optoelectronic properties derive from their underlying structural properties. In particular, the influence of the concentration and distribution of dopant ions and compensating defects on the optoelectronic properties of TCO nanocrystals has seen little investigation.
Indium tin oxide (ITO) is the most widely studied and commercially deployed TCO. Herein we investigate the role of the distribution of tin dopants on the optoelectronic properties of colloidally prepared ITO nanocrystals. Owing to a high free electron density, ITO nanocrystals display strong LSPR absorption in the near infrared. Depending on the particular organic ligands used, they are soluble in various solvents and can readily be integrated into densely packed nanocrystal films with high conductivities. Using a combination of spectroscopic techniques, modeling and simulation of the optical properties of the nanocrystals using the Drude model, and transport measurements, it is demonstrated herein that the radial distribution of tin dopants has a strong effect on the optoelectronic properties of ITO nanocrystals.
ITO nanocrystals were synthesized in both surface-segregated and uniformly distributed dopant profiles. Temperature dependent measurements of optical absorbance were first combined with Drude modeling to extract the internal electrical properties of the ITO nanocrystals, demonstrating that they are well-behaved degenerately doped semiconductors displaying finite conductivity at low temperature and room temperature conductivity reduced by one order of magnitude from that of high-quality thin film ITO.
Synchrotron based x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS) was then employed to perform detailed depth profiling of the elemental composition of ITO nanocrystals, confirming the degree of dopant surface-segregation. Based on free carrier concentrations extracted from Drude fitting of LSPR absorbance, an inverse correlation was found between surface segregation of tin and overall dopant activation. Furthermore, radial distribution of dopants was found to significantly affect the lineshape and quality factor of the LSPR absorbance. ITO nanocrystals with highly surface segregated dopants displayed symmetric LSPRs with high quality factors, while uniformly doped ITO nanocrystals displayed asymmetric LSPRs with reduced quality factors. These effects are attributed to damping of the plasmon by Coulombic scattering off ionized dopant impurities.
Finally, the distribution of dopants is also found to influence the conductivity of ITO nanocrystal films. Films made from nanocrystals with a high degree of surface segregation demonstrated one order of magnitude higher conductivity than those based on uniformly doped crystals. However, no evidence was found for differences in the surface electronic structure from one type of crystal to the other based on XPS and the exact mechanism for this difference is still not understood.
Several future studies to further illuminate the influence of dopant distribution on ITO nanocrystals are suggested. Using synchrotron radiation, detailed photoelectron spectroscopy on clean ITO nanocrystal surfaces, single-nanoparticle optical measurements, and hard x-ray structural studies will all be instructive in elucidating the interaction between oscillating free electrons and defect scattering centers when a plasmon is excited. In addition, measurements of temperature and surface treatment-dependent conductivity with carefully controlled atmosphere and surface chemistry will be needed in order to better understand the transport properties of ITO nanocrystal films. Each of these studies will enable better fundamental knowledge of the plasmonic properties of nanostructures and improve the development of nanocrystal based plasmonic devices.