Sub-20 nm Core–Shell–Shell Nanoparticles for Bright Upconversion and Enhanced Förster Resonant Energy Transfer
Published Web Locationhttps://doi.org/10.1021/jacs.9b09571
Upconverting nanoparticles provide valuable benefits as optical probes for bioimaging and Förster resonant energy transfer (FRET) due to their high signal-to-noise ratio, photostability, and biocompatibility; yet, making nanoparticles small yields a significant decay in brightness due to increased surface quenching. Approaches to improve the brightness of UCNPs exist but often require increased nanoparticle size. Here we present a unique core-shell-shell nanoparticle architecture for small (sub-20 nm), bright upconversion with several key features: (1) maximal sensitizer concentration in the core for high near-infrared absorption, (2) efficient energy transfer between core and interior shell for strong emission, and (3) emitter localization near the nanoparticle surface for efficient FRET. This architecture consists of β-NaYbF4 (core) @NaY0.8-xErxGd0.2F4 (interior shell) @NaY0.8Gd0.2F4 (exterior shell), where sensitizer and emitter ions are partitioned into core and interior shell, respectively. Emitter concentration is varied (x = 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 80%) to investigate influence on single particle brightness, upconversion quantum yield, decay lifetimes, and FRET coupling. We compare these seven samples with the field-standard core-shell architecture of β-NaY0.58Gd0.2Yb0.2Er0.02F4 (core) @NaY0.8Gd0.2F4 (shell), with sensitizer and emitter ions codoped in the core. At a single particle level, the core-shell-shell design was up to 2-fold brighter than the standard core-shell design. Further, by coupling a fluorescent dye to the surface of the two different architectures, we demonstrated up to 8-fold improved emission enhancement with the core-shell-shell compared to the core-shell design. We show how, given proper consideration for emitter concentration, we can design a unique nanoparticle architecture to yield comparable or improved brightness and FRET coupling within a small volume.