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Insights into the dynamics of electrochemical processes are critically needed to improve our fundamental understanding of electron, charge, and mass transfer mechanisms and reaction kinetics that influence a broad range of applications, from the functionality of electrical energy-storage and conversion devices (e.g., batteries, fuel cells, and supercapacitors), to materials degradation issues (e.g., corrosion and oxidation), and materials synthesis (e.g., electrodeposition). To unravel these processes, in situ electrochemical scanning/transmission electron microscopy (ec-S/TEM) was developed to permit detailed site-specific characterization of evolving electrochemical processes that occur at electrode–electrolyte interfaces in their native electrolyte environment, in real time and at high-spatial resolution. This approach utilizes “closed-form” microfabricated electrochemical cells that couple the capability for quantitative electrochemical measurements with high spatial and temporal resolution imaging, spectroscopy, and diffraction. In this article, we review the state-of-the-art instrumentation for in situ ec-S/TEM and how this approach has resulted in new observations of electrochemical processes.
New cryogenic characterization techniques for exploring the nanoscale structure and chemistry of intact solid–liquid interfaces have recently been developed. These techniques provide high-resolution information about buried interfaces from large samples or devices that cannot be obtained by other means. These advancements were enabled by the development of instrumentation for cryogenic focused ion beam liftout, which allows intact solid–liquid interfaces to be extracted from large samples and thinned to electron-transparent thicknesses for characterization by cryogenic scanning transmission electron microscopy or atom probe tomography. Future implementation of these techniques will complement current strides in imaging of materials in fluid environments by in situ liquid-phase electron microscopy, providing a more complete understanding of the morphology, surface chemistry, and dynamic processes that occur at solid–liquid interfaces.
The drying effect associated with utilizing transmission electron microscopy to study deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)-coated gold nanoparticles (AuNPs) remains largely uninvestigated, though this technique is frequently utilized to characterize nanoparticle–DNA interactions. Investigation of the drying effect is essential to the progress of the many fields that utilize AuNPs, including cancer research. In this study, we compare DNA hybridization-directed nanoparticle assemblies with control samples omitting the necessary complementary DNA, effectively blocking directed assembly, in both the liquid state and the dry state, within a scanning transmission electron microscope. We show that the dry samples contain AuNPs spaced at significantly smaller intervals than identical samples measured in situ, with no dependence on the DNA bound to the AuNPs in the dry samples. A partially wet sample, with distances measured along the drying edge, provided an intermediate binding distance, strengthening the conclusion that drastic differences observed between the dry and in situ samples are due to a pronounced drying effect. This drying effect will falsely indicate certain grouping arrangements and will change the impression of the size of the groups formed, providing misinformation for the development of these controlled assemblies that could impact applications such as targeted drug vehicles for cancer treatment.
Observation of growth, synthesis, dynamics, and electrochemical reactions in the liquid state is an important yet largely unstudied aspect of nanotechnology. The only techniques that can potentially provide the insights necessary to advance our understanding of these mechanisms is simultaneous atomic-scale imaging and quantitative chemical analysis (through spectroscopy) under environmental conditions in the transmission electron microscope. In this study we describe the experimental and technical conditions necessary to obtain electron energy loss (EEL) spectra from a nanoparticle in colloidal suspension using aberration-corrected scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM) combined with the environmental liquid stage. At a fluid path length below 400 nm, atomic resolution images can be obtained and simultaneous compositional analysis can be achieved. We show that EEL spectroscopy can be used to quantify the total fluid path length around the nanoparticle and demonstrate that characteristic core-loss signals from the suspended nanoparticles can be resolved and analyzed to provide information on the local interfacial chemistry with the surrounding environment. The combined approach using aberration-corrected STEM and EEL spectra with the in situ fluid stage demonstrates a plenary platform for detailed investigations of solution-based catalysis.
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