Photoluminescence upconversion in monolayer WSe2 activated by plasmonic cavities through resonant excitation of dark excitons

Anti-Stokes photoluminescence (PL) is light emission at a higher photon energy than the excitation, with applications in optical cooling, bioimaging, lasing, and quantum optics. Here, we show how plasmonic nano-cavities activate anti-Stokes PL in WSe2 monolayers through resonant excitation of a dark exciton at room temperature. The optical near-fields of the plasmonic cavities excite the out-of-plane transition dipole of the dark exciton, leading to light emission from the bright exciton at higher energy. Through statistical measurements on hundreds of plasmonic cavities, we show that coupling to the dark exciton leads to a near hundred-fold enhancement of the upconverted PL intensity. This is further corroborated by experiments in which the laser excitation wavelength is tuned across the dark exciton. We show that a precise nanoparticle geometry is key for a consistent enhancement, with decahedral nanoparticle shapes providing an efficient PL upconversion. Finally, we demonstrate a selective and reversible switching of the upconverted PL via electrochemical gating. Our work introduces the dark exciton as an excitation channel for anti-Stokes PL in WSe2 and paves the way for large-area substrates providing nanoscale optical cooling, anti-Stokes lasing, and radiative engineering of excitons.

SERS Sensing of Dopamine with Fe(III)-Sensitized Nanogaps in Recleanable AuNP Monolayer Films

Sensing of neurotransmitters (NTs) down to nm concentrations is demonstrated by utilizing self-assembled monolayers of plasmonic 60 nm Au nanoparticles in close-packed arrays immobilized onto glass substrates. Multiplicative surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy enhancements are achieved by integrating Fe(III) sensitizers into the precisely-defined <1 nm nanogaps, to target dopamine (DA) sensing. The transparent glass substrates allow for efficient access from both sides of the monolayer aggregate films by fluid and light, allowing repeated sensing in different analytes. Repeated reusability after analyte sensing is shown through oxygen plasma cleaning protocols, which restore pristine conditions for the nanogaps. Examining binding competition in multiplexed sensing of two catecholamine NTs, DA and epinephrine, reveals their bidentate binding and their interactions. These systems are promising for widespread microfluidic integration enabling a wide range of continuous biofluid monitoring for applications in precision health.
small 19(48), 2302531, 2023

Mapping Atomic-Scale Metal–Molecule Interactions: Salient Feature Extraction through Autoencoding of Vibrational Spectroscopy Data

Atomic-scale features, such as step edges and adatoms, play key roles in metal–molecule interactions and are critically important in heterogeneous catalysis, molecular electronics, and sensing applications. However, the small size and often transient nature of atomic-scale structures make studying such interactions challenging. Here, by combining single-molecule surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy with machine learning, spectra are extracted of perturbed molecules, revealing the formation dynamics of adatoms in gold and palladium metal surfaces. This provides unique insight into atomic-scale processes, allowing us to resolve where such metallic protrusions form and how they interact with nearby molecules. Our technique paves the way to tailor metal–molecule interactions on an atomic level and assists in rational heterogeneous catalyst design. 
J. Phys. Chem. Lett. 2023, 14, 34, 7603–7610

We demonstrate the reliable creation of multiple layers of Au nanoparticles in random close-packed arrays with sub-nm gaps as a sensitive surface-enhanced Raman scattering substrate. Using oxygen plasma etching, all the original molecules creating the nanogaps can be removed and replaced with scaffolding ligands that deliver extremely consistent gap sizes below 1 nm. This allows precision tailoring of the chemical environment of the nanogaps which is crucial for practical Raman sensing applications. Because the resulting aggregate layers are easily accessible from opposite sides by fluids and by light, high-performance fluidic sensing cells are enabled. The ability to cyclically clean off analytes and reuse these films is shown, exemplified by sensing of toluene, volatile organic compounds, and paracetamol, among others.  ACS Sens. 2023, 8, 7, 2879–2888

Molecular vibrations couple to visible light only weakly, have small mutual interactions, and hence are often ignored for non-linear optics. Here we show the extreme confinement provided by plasmonic nano- and pico-cavities can sufficiently enhance optomechanical coupling so that intense laser illumination drastically softens the molecular bonds. This optomechanical pumping regime produces strong distortions of the Raman vibrational spectrum related to giant vibrational frequency shifts from an optical spring effect which is hundred-fold larger than in traditional cavities. The theoretical simulations accounting for the multimodal nanocavity response and near-field-induced collective phonon interactions are consistent with the experimentally-observed non-linear behavior exhibited in the Raman spectra of nanoparticle-on-mirror constructs illuminated by ultrafast laser pulses. Further, we show indications that plasmonic picocavities allow us to access the optical spring effect in single molecules with continuous illumination. Driving the collective phonon in the nanocavity paves the way to control reversible bond softening, as well as irreversible chemistry.  Nature Communications 14, 3291 (2023)

Bottom-up assembly of nanoparticle-on-mirror (NPoM) nanocavities enables precise inter-metal gap control down to ≈ 0.4 nm for confining light to sub-nanometer scales, thereby opening opportunities for developing innovative nanophotonic devices. However limited understanding, prediction, and optimization of light coupling and the difficulty of controlling nanoparticle facet shapes restricts the use of such building blocks. Here, an ultraprecise symmetry-breaking plasmonic nanocavity based on gold nanodecahedra is presented, to form the nanodecahedron-on-mirror (NDoM) which shows highly consistent cavity modes and fields. By characterizing > 20 000 individual NDoMs, the variability of light in/output coupling is thoroughly explored and a set of robust higher-order plasmonic whispering gallery modes uniquely localized at the edges of the triangular facet in contact with the metallic substrate is found. Assisted by quasinormal mode simulations, systematic elaboration of NDoMs is proposed to give nanocavities with near hundred-fold enhanced radiative efficiencies. Such systematically designed and precisely-assembled metallic nanocavities will find broad application in nanophotonic devices, optomechanics, and surface science. Advanced Science 10(11), 2207178 ( 2023)

Plasmonic nanoantennas can focus light at nanometer length scales providing intense field enhancements. For the tightest optical confinements (0.5–5 nm) achieved in plasmonic gaps, the gap spacing, refractive index, and facet width play a dominant role in determining the optical properties making tuning through antenna shape challenging. We show here that controlling the surrounding refractive index instead allows both efficient frequency tuning and enhanced in-/output coupling through retardation matching as this allows dark modes to become optically active, improving widespread functionalities.  ACS Photonics 10(2), 493–499 (2023)

A liquid-based surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy assay termed PSALM is developed for the selective sensing of neurotransmitters (NTs) with a limit of detection below the physiological range of NT concentrations in urine. This assay is formed by quick and simple nanoparticle (NP) “mix-and-measure” protocols, in which FeIII bridges NTs and gold NPs inside the sensing hotspots. Detection limits of NTs from PreNP PSALM are significantly lower than those of PostNP PSALM, when urine is pretreated by affinity separation. Optimized PSALM enables the long-term monitoring of NT variation in urine in conventional settings for the first time, allowing the development of NTs as predictive or correlative biomarkers for clinical diagnosis.  ACS Nanosci. Au 2023, 3, 2, 161–171

Nanoconfined few-molecule water clusters are invaluable systems to study fundamental aspects of hydrogen bonding. Unfortunately, most experiments on water clusters must be performed at cryogenic temperatures. Probing water clusters in noncryogenic systems is however crucial to understand the behavior of confined water in atmospheric or biological settings, but such systems usually require either complex synthesis and/or introduce many confounding external bonds to the clusters. Here, we show that combining Raman spectroscopy with the molecular nanocapsule cucurbituril is a powerful technique to sequester and analyze water clusters in ambient conditions. We observe sharp peaks in vibrational spectra arising from a single rigid confined water dimer. The high resolution and rich information in these vibrational spectra allow us to track specific isotopic exchanges inside the water dimer, verified with density-functional theory and kinetic population modeling. We showcase the versatility of such molecular nanocapsules by tracking water cluster vibrations through systematic changes in confinement size, in temperatures up to 120° C, and in their chemical environment.

The optical properties of nanogap plasmonic cavities formed by a NanoParticle-on-Mirror (NPoM, or patch antenna) are determined here, across a wide range of geometric parameters including the nanoparticle diameter, gap refractive index, gap thickness, facet size and shape. Full understanding of the confined optical modes allows these nanocavities to be utilized in a wide range of experiments across many fields. We show that the gap thickness t and refractive index n are spectroscopically indistinguishable, accounted for by a single gap parameter G = n/t0.47. Simple tuning of mode resonant frequencies and strength is found for each quasi-normal mode, revealing a spectroscopic “fingerprint” for each facet shape, on both truncated spherical and rhombicuboctahedral nanoparticles. This is applied to determine the most likely nanoscale morphology of facets hidden below each NPoM in experiment, as well as to optimize the constructs for different applications. Simple scaling relations are demonstrated, and an online tool for general use is provided.
ACS Photonics 9(8), 2643–2651 ( 2022 )

Optical suppression of energy barriers in single molecule-metal binding

Transient bonds between molecules and metal surfaces underpin catalysis, bio/molecular sensing, molecular electronics, and electrochemistry. Techniques aiming to characterize these bonds often yield conflicting conclusions, while single-molecule probes are scarce. A promising prospect confines light inside metal nanogaps to elicit in operando vibrational signatures through surface-enhanced Raman scattering. Here, we show through analysis of more than a million spectra that light irradiation of only a few microwatts on molecules at gold facets is sufficient to overcome the metallic bonds between individual gold atoms and pull them out to form coordination complexes. Depending on the molecule, these light-extracted adatoms persist for minutes under ambient conditions. Tracking their power-dependent formation and decay suggests that tightly trapped light transiently reduces energy barriers at the metal surface. This opens intriguing prospects for photocatalysis and controllable low-energy quantum devices such as single-atom optical switches. Science Advances 8(25) ( 2022 )

Surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) is considered an attractive candidate for quantitative and multiplexed molecular sensing of analytes whose chemical composition is not fully known. In principle, molecules can be identified through their fingerprint spectrum when binding inside plasmonic hotspots. However, competitive binding experiments between methyl viologen (MV2+) and its deuterated isomer (d8-MV2+) here show that determining individual concentrations by extracting peak intensities from spectra is not possible. This is because analytes bind to different binding sites inside and outside of hotspots with different affinities. Only by knowing all binding constants and geometry-related factors, can a model revealing accurate concentrations be constructed. To collect sufficiently reproducible data for such a sensitive experiment, we fully automate measurements using a high-throughput SERS optical system integrated with a liquid handling robot (the SERSbot). This now allows us to accurately deconvolute analyte mixtures through independent component analysis (ICA) and to quantitatively map out the competitive binding of analytes in nanogaps. Its success demonstrates the feasibility of automated SERS in a wide variety of experiments and applications. ACS Sens. 2021, 6, 12, 4507–4514

Metal/organic-molecule interactions underpin many key chemistries but occur on sub-nm scales where nanoscale visualisation techniques tend to average over heterogeneous distributions. Single molecule imaging techniques at the atomic scale have found it challenging to track chemical behaviour under ambient conditions. Surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy can optically monitor the vibrations of single molecules but understanding is limited by the complexity of spectra and mismatch between theory and experiment. We demonstrate that spectra from an optically generated metallic adatom near a molecule of interest can be inverted into dynamic sub-Å metal-molecule interactions using a comprehensive model, revealing anomalous diffusion of a single atom. Transient metal-organic coordination bonds chemically perturb molecular functional groups > 10 bonds away. With continuous improvements in computational methods for modelling large and complex molecular systems, this technique will become increasingly applicable to accurately tracking more complex chemistries. Nature Communications volume 12, Article number: 6759 (2021)

Transient atomic protrusions in plasmonic nanocavities confine optical fields to sub-1-nm3 picocavities, allowing the optical interrogation of single molecules at room temperature. While picocavity formation is linked to both the local chemical environment and optical irradiation, the role of light in localizing the picocavity formation is unclear. Here, we combine information from thousands of picocavity events and simultaneously compare the transient Raman scattering arising from two incident pump wavelengths. Full analysis of the data set suggests that light suppresses the local effective barrier height for adatom formation and that the initial barrier height is decreased by reduced atomic coordination numbers near facet edges. Modeling the system also resolves the frequency-dependent picocavity field enhancements supported by these atomic scale features.  ACS Photonics 2021, 8, 10, 2868–2875

Nature controls the assembly of complex architectures through self-limiting processes; however, few artificial strategies to mimic these processes have been reported to date. Here we demonstrate a system comprising two types of nanocrystal (NC), where the self-limiting assembly of one NC component controls the aggregation of the other. Our strategy uses semiconducting InP/ZnS core–shell NCs (3 nm) as effective assembly modulators and functional nanoparticle surfactants in cucurbit[n]uril-triggered aggregation of AuNCs (5–60 nm), allowing the rapid formation (within seconds) of colloidally stable hybrid aggregates. The resultant assemblies efficiently harvest light within the semiconductor substructures, inducing out-of-equilibrium electron transfer processes, which can now be simultaneously monitored through the incorporated surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy–active plasmonic compartments. Spatial confinement of electron mediators (for example, methyl viologen (MV2+)) within the hybrids enables the direct observation of photogenerated radical species as well as molecular recognition in real time, providing experimental evidence for the formation of elusive σ–(MV+)2 dimeric species. This approach paves the way for widespread use of analogous hybrids for the long-term real-time tracking of interfacial charge transfer processes, such as the light-driven generation of radicals and catalysis with operando spectroscopies under irreversible conditions.  Nature Nanotechnology volume 16, pages1121–1129 (2021)

Understanding single-molecule chemical dynamics of surface ligands is of critical importance to reveal their individual pathways and, hence, roles in catalysis, which ensemble measurements cannot see. Here, we use a cascaded nano-optics approach that provides sufficient enhancement to enable direct tracking of chemical trajectories of single surface-bound molecules via vibrational spectroscopy. Atomic protrusions are laser-induced within plasmonic nanojunctions to concentrate light to atomic length scales, optically isolating individual molecules. By stabilizing these atomic sites, we unveil single-molecule deprotonation and binding dynamics under ambient conditions. High-speed field-enhanced spectroscopy allows us to monitor chemical switching of a single carboxylic group between three discrete states. Combining this with theoretical calculation identifies reversible proton transfer dynamics (yielding effective single-molecule pH) and switching between molecule-metal coordination states, where the exact chemical pathway depends on the intitial protonation state. These findings open new domains to explore interfacial single-molecule mechanisms and optical manipulation of their reaction pathways. Science Advances 7(23),  (2021)

Irreproducibility in surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) due to variability among substrates is a source of recurrent debate within the field. It is regarded as a major hurdle towards the widespread adoption of SERS as a sensing platform. Most of the literature focused on developing substrates for various applications considers reproducibility of lower importance. Here, we address and analyse the sources of this irreproducibility in order to show how these can be minimised. We apply our findings to a simple substrate demonstrating reproducible SERS measurements with relative standard deviations well below 1% between different batches and days. Identifying the sources of irreproducibility and understanding how to reduce these can aid in the transition of SERS from the lab to real-world applications.

Nucleation and growth is a technique widely used to prepare colloids, in which droplets are adsorbed onto substrate particles. Changing the contact angle of the substrates can greatly alter the morphology of the product particles. Here, we investigate the nucleation and growth of 3-methacryloxypropyltrimethoxysilane (MPTMS) both onto Stöber spheres and onto (cross-linked) MPTMS* spheres. The former results in ‘snowman’ particles with a cap-shaped MPTMS* compartment, and we show that their morphology is highly controllable via the MPTMS content in the reaction mixture. The contact angle of the MPTMS* compartment decreases with droplet diameter, suggesting that this wetting process is affected not only by surface tension but also by line tension. In contrast to Stöber spheres, MPTMS* substrate particles yield highly reproducible and tuneable ‘engulfed-sphere’ colloids with an internal reference axis (but a homogeneous mass distribution). These engulfed-sphere particles can be fully index-matched for confocal microscopy on account of their homogeneous refractive index. Suitable index-matching mixtures of polar and of low-polar media are presented, where cyclohexyl iodide (CHI) is introduced as a new medium for colloids of high refractive index. Finally, the index-matched engulfed-sphere colloids are self-assembled into (close-packed and long-range) plastic phases, and the particles’ rotational diffusion inside the crystal phases is tracked via confocal microscopy. Journal of Colloid and Interface Science 581(A), 417-426 (2021)

Molecular electronics promises a new generation of ultralow-energy information technologies, based around functional molecular junctions. Here, we report optical probing that exploits a gold nanoparticle in a plasmonic nanocavity geometry used as one terminal of a well-defined molecular junction, deposited as a self-assembled molecular monolayer on flat gold. A conductive transparent cantilever electrically contacts individual nanoparticles while maintaining optical access to the molecular junction. Optical readout of molecular structure in the junction reveals ultralow-energy switching of ∼50 zJ, from a nano-electromechanical torsion spring at the single molecule level. Real-time Raman measurements show these electronic device characteristics are directly affected by this molecular torsion, which can be explained using a simple circuit model based on junction capacitances, confirmed by density functional theory calculations. This nanomechanical degree of freedom is normally invisible and ignored in electrical transport measurements but is vital to the design and exploitation of molecules as quantum-coherent electronic nanodevices.  Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 5905 (2020)

Resistive switches, which are also known as memristors, are low-power, nanosecond-response devices that are used in a range of memory-centric technologies. Driven by an externally applied potential, the switching mechanism of valence change resistive memories involves the migration, accumulation and rearrangement of oxygen vacancies within a dielectric medium, leading to a change in electrical conductivity. The ability to look inside these devices and understand how morphological changes characterize their function has been vital in their development. However, current technologies are often destructive and invasive. Here, we report a non-destructive optical spectroscopy technique that can detect the motion of a few hundred oxygen vacancies with nanometre-scale sensitivity. Resistive switches are arranged in a nanoparticle-on-mirror geometry to exploit the high optical sensitivity to morphological changes occurring in tightly confined plasmonic hotspots within the switching material. Using this approach, we find that nanoscale oxygen bubbles form at the surface of a strontium titanate memristor film, leading ultimately to device breakdown on cycling.  Nature Electronics volume 3, pages687–693 (2020)

Surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) is a powerful analytical technique capable of single-molecule sensing. Here, by designing nanoarchitectures that combine nanoscale lensing and plasmonic coupling, its optical efficiency is improved a thousandfold. The intense signals we now achieve rival the brightness of conventional single-molecule fluorescent dyes and other two-level systems. We demonstrate its capability by resolving the real-time microsecond dynamics of individual gold atoms and lattice defects at room temperature. We also show the ability to detect individual isotopes within ensembles of nonresonant molecules. This step change in signal-to-noise shows the untapped potential of SERS and demonstrates its capability for direct real-time monitoring of chemistry in ambient conditions. PNAS 117(26), 14819-14826 (2020)

Gold nanoparticles used in many types of nanostructure are mostly stabilized by citrate ligands. Fully understanding their dynamic surface chemistry is thus essential for applications, particularly since aging is frequently a problem. Using surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy in conjunction with density functional theory calculations, we are able to determine Au–citrate coordination in liquid with minimal invasiveness. We show that citrate coordination is mostly bidentate and simply controlled by its protonation state. More complex binding motifs are caused by interfering chloride ions and gold adatoms. With increasing age of stored gold nanoparticle suspensions, gold adatoms are found to move atop the Au facets and bind to an additional terminal carboxylate of the citrate. Aged nanoparticles are fully refreshed by removing these adatoms, using etching and subsequent boiling of the gold nanoparticles. ACS Nano 2020, 14, 7, 8689–8696

Light-Induced Coalescence of Plasmonic Dimers and Clusters

The properties of nanoplasmonic structures depend strongly on their geometry, creating the need for high-precision control and characterization. Here, by exploiting the low activation energy of gold atoms on nanoparticle surfaces, we show how laser irradiation reshapes nanoparticle dimers. Time-course dark-field microspectroscopy allows this process to be studied in detail for individual nanostructures. Three regimes are identified: facet growth, formation of a conductive bridge between particles, and bridge growth. Electromagnetic simulations confirm the growth dynamics and allow measurement of bridge diameter, found to be highly reproducible and also self-limiting. Correlations in spectral resonances for the initial and final states give insight into the energy barriers for bridge growth. Dark-field microscopy shows that coalescence of multiple gaps in nanoparticle clusters can be digitally triggered, with each gap closing after discrete increases in irradiation power. Such control is important for light-induced nanowire formation or trimming of electronic and optoelectronic devices.  ACS Nano 2020, 14, 4, 4982–4987

Lipid bilayers assembled on solid substrates have been extensively studied with single-molecule resolution as the constituent molecules diffuse in 2D; however, the out-of-plane motion is typically ignored. Here we present the subnanometer out-of-plane diffusion of nanoparticles attached to hybrid lipid bilayers (HBLs) assembled on metal surfaces. The nanoscale cavity formed between the Au nanoparticle and Au film provides strongly enhanced optical fields capable of locally probing HBLs assembled in the gaps. This allows us to spectroscopically resolve the nanoparticles assembled on bilayers, near edges, and in membrane defects, showing the strong influence of charged lipid rafts. Nanoparticles sitting on the edges of the HBL are observed to flip onto and off of the bilayer, with flip energies of ∼10 meV showing how thermal energies dynamically modify lipid arrangements around a nanoparticle. We further resolve the movement of individual lipid molecules by doping the HBL with low concentrations of Texas Red (TxR) dye-labeled lipids.  J. Phys. Chem. Lett. 2020, 11, 8, 2875–2882

We report methods to synthesize sub-micron- and micron-sized patchy silica particles with fluorescently labeled hemispherical titania protrusions, as well as routes to efficiently characterize these particles and self-assemble these particles into non-close-packed structures. The synthesis methods expand upon earlier work in the literature, in which silica particles packed in a colloidal crystal were surface-patterned with a silane coupling agent. Here, hemispherical amorphous titania protrusions were successfully labeled with fluorescent dyes, allowing for imaging by confocal microscopy and super-resolution techniques. Confocal microscopy was exploited to experimentally determine the numbers of protrusions per particle over large numbers of particles for good statistical significance, and these distributions were compared to simulations predicting the number of patches as a function of core particle polydispersity and maximum separation between the particle surfaces. We self-assembled these patchy particles into open percolating gel networks by exploiting solvophobic attractions between the protrusions.

The dynamic restructuring of metal nanoparticle surfaces is known to greatly influence their catalytic, electronic transport, and chemical binding functionalities. Here we show for the first time that non-equilibrium atomic-scale lattice defects can be detected in nanoparticles by purely optical means. These fluctuating states determine interface electronic transport for molecular electronics but because such rearrangements are low energy, measuring their rapid dynamics on single nanostructures by X-rays, electron beams, or tunnelling microscopies, is invasive and damaging. We utilise nano-optics at the sub-5nm scale to reveal rapid (on the millisecond timescale) evolution of defect morphologies on facets of gold nanoparticles on a mirror. Besides dynamic structural information, this highlights fundamental questions about defining bulk plasma frequencies for metals probed at the nanoscale.  Nature Communications volume 11, Article number: 682 (2020)

In this work, we demonstrate that coordination interactions between Fe3+ and cucurbit[7]uril (CB[7]) can be utilised to build up defined nanoscale spacing layers in metallic nanosystems. We begin by characterising the layer-by-layer deposition of CB[7] and FeCl3·6H2O coordination layers through the use of a Quartz-Crystal Microbalance (QCM) and contact angle measurements. We then apply this layered structure to accurately control the spacing, and thus optical properties, of gold nanoparticles in a Nanoparticle-on-Mirror (NPoM) structure, which is demonstrated via normalising plasmon resonance spectroscopy.

Quantitative applications of surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) often rely on surface partition layers grafted to SERS substrates to collect and trap-solvated analytes that would not otherwise adsorb onto metals. Such binding layers drastically broaden the scope of analytes that can be probed. However, excess binding sites introduced by this partition layer also trap analytes outside the plasmonic “hotspots”. We show that by eliminating these binding sites, limits of detection (LODs) can effectively be lowered by more than an order of magnitude. We highlight the effectiveness of this approach by demonstrating quantitative detection of controlled drugs down to subnanomolar concentrations in aqueous media. Such LODs are low enough to screen, for example, urine at clinically relevant levels. These findings provide unique insights into the binding behavior of analytes, which are essential when designing high-performance SERS substrates.   ACS Sens. 2019, 4, 11, 2988–2996

The resonance wavelength of a coupled plasmonic system is extremely sensitive to the distance between its metallic surfaces, resulting in “plasmon rulers”. We explore this behavior in the subnanometer regime using self-assembled monolayers of bis-phthalocyanine molecules in a nanoparticle-on-mirror (NPoM) construct. These allow unprecedented subangstrom control over spacer thickness via choice of metal center, in a gap-size regime at the quantum-mechanical limit of plasmonic enhancement. A dramatic shift in the coupled plasmon resonance is observed as the gap size is varied from 0.39 to 0.41 nm. Existing theoretical models are unable to account for the observed spectral tuning, which requires inclusion of the quantum-classical interface, emphasizing the need for new treatments of light at the subnanoscale.

External-stimuli controlled reversible formation of radical species is of great interest for synthetic and supramolecular chemistry, molecular machinery, as well as emerging technologies ranging from (photo)catalysis and photovoltaics to nanomedicine. Here we show a novel hybrid colloidal system for light-driven reversible reduction of chemical species that, on their own, do not respond to light. This is achieved by the unique combination of photo-sensitive plasmonic aggregates and temperature-responsive inorganic species generating radicals that can be finally accepted and stabilised by non-photo-responsive organic molecules. In this system Au nanoparticles (NPs) self-assembled via sub-nm precise molecular spacers (cucurbit[n]urils) interact strongly with visible light to locally accelerate the decomposition of dithionite species (S2O42−) close to the NP interfaces. This light-driven process leads to the generation of inorganic radicals whose electrons can then be reversibly picked up by small organic acceptors, such as the methyl viologen molecules (MV2+) used here. During light-triggered plasmon- and heat-assisted generation of radicals, the S2O42− species work as a chemical ‘fuel’ linking photo-induced processes at the NP interfaces with redox chemistry in the surrounding water environment. By incorporating MV2+ as a Raman-active reporter molecule, the resulting optically-controlled redox processes can be followed in real-time.  Faraday Discuss., 2019, 214, 455-463

Reproducible confinement of light on the nanoscale is essential for the ability to observe and control chemical reactions at the single-molecule level. Here we reliably form millions of identical nanocavities and show that the light can be further focused down to the subnanometer scale via the creation of picocavities, single-adatom protrusions with angstrom-level resolution. For the first time, we stabilize and analyze these cavities at room temperatures through high-speed surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy on specifically selected molecular components, collecting and analyzing more than 2 million spectra. Data obtained on these picocavities allows us to deduce structural information on the nanoscale, showing that thiol binding to gold destabilizes the metal surface to optical irradiation. Nitrile moieties are found to stabilize picocavities by 10-fold against their disappearance, typically surviving for >1 s. Such constructs demonstrate the accessibility of single-molecule chemistry under ambient conditions.  J. Phys. Chem. Lett. 2018, 9, 24, 7146–7151

Small numbers of surface-bound molecules are shown to behave as would be expected for optomechanical oscillators placed inside plasmonic nanocavities that support extreme confinement of optical fields. Pulsed Raman scattering reveals superlinear Stokes emission above a threshold, arising from the stimulated vibrational pumping of molecular bonds under pulsed excitation shorter than the phonon decay time, and agreeing with pulsed optomechanical quantum theory. Reaching the parametric instability (equivalent to a phonon laser or “phaser” regime) is, however, hindered by the motion of gold atoms and molecular reconfiguration at phonon occupations approaching unity. We show how this irreversible bond breaking can ultimately limit the exploitation of molecules as quantum-mechanical oscillators, but accesses optically driven chemistry. Phys. Rev. X 8, 011016 (2018)

In order to optimize surface-enhanced Raman scattering (SERS) of noble metal nanostructures for enabling chemical identification of analyte molecules, careful design of nanoparticle structures must be considered. We spatially map the local SERS enhancements across individual microaggregates comprised of monodisperse nanoparticles separated by rigid monodisperse 0.9 nm gaps and show the influence of depositing these onto different underlying substrates. Experiments and simulations show that the gaps between neighboring nanoparticles dominate the SERS enhancement far more than the gaps between nanoparticles and substrate.

Strong coupling of monolayer metal dichalcogenide semiconductors with light offers encouraging prospects for realistic exciton devices at room temperature. However, the nature of this coupling depends extremely sensitively on the optical confinement and the orientation of electronic dipoles and fields. Here, we show how plasmon strong coupling can be achieved in compact, robust, and easily assembled gold nano-gap resonators at room temperature. We prove that strong-coupling is impossible with monolayers due to the large exciton coherence size, but resolve clear anti-crossings for greater than 7 layer devices with Rabi splittings exceeding 135 meV. We show that such structures improve on prospects for nonlinear exciton functionalities by at least 104, while retaining quantum efficiencies above 50%, and demonstrate evidence for superlinear light emission.  Nature Communications volume 8, Article number: 1296 (2017)

Nanoparticles attached just above a flat metallic surface can trap optical fields in the nanoscale gap. This enables local spectroscopy of a few molecules within each coupled plasmonic hotspot, with near thousand-fold enhancement of the incident fields. As a result of non-radiative relaxation pathways, the plasmons in such sub-nanometre cavities generate hot charge carriers, which can catalyse chemical reactions or induce redox processes in molecules located within the plasmonic hotspots. Here, surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy allows us to track these hot-electron-induced chemical reduction processes in a series of different aromatic molecules. We demonstrate that by increasing the tunnelling barrier height and the dephasing strength, a transition from coherent to hopping electron transport occurs, enabling observation of redox processes in real time at the single-molecule level.

We study in real time the optical response of individual plasmonic nanoparticles on a mirror, utilized as electrodes in an electrochemical cell when a voltage is applied. In this geometry, Au nanoparticles are separated from a bulk Au film by an ultrathin molecular spacer. The nanoscale plasmonic hotspot underneath the nanoparticles locally reveals the modified charge on the Au surface and changes in the polarizability of the molecular spacer. Dark-field and Raman spectroscopy performed on the same nanoparticle show our ability to exploit isolated plasmonic junctions to track the dynamics of nanoelectrochemistry. Enhancements in Raman emission and blue-shifts at a negative potential show the ability to shift electrons within the gap molecules.

Single nanoparticles are shown to develop a localized acoustic resonance, the bouncing mode, when placed on a substrate. If both substrate and nanoparticle are noble metals, plasmonic coupling of the nanoparticle to its image charges in the film induces tight light confinement in the nanogap. This yields ultrastrong “acoustoplasmonic” coupling with a figure of merit 7 orders of magnitude higher than conventional acousto-optic modulators. The plasmons thus act as a local vibrational probe of the contact geometry. A simple analytical mechanical model is found to describe the bouncing mode in terms of the nanoscale structure, allowing transient pump-probe spectroscopy to directly measure the contact area for individual nanoparticles. Phys. Rev. Lett. 119, 023901 (2017)

Plasmonic nanocavities with sub-5-nm gaps between nanoparticles support multiple resonances possessing ultra-high-field confinement and enhancements. Here we systematically compare the two fundamentally different resonant gap modes: transverse waveguide (s) and antenna modes (l), which, despite both tightly confining light within the gap, have completely different near-field and far-field radiation patterns. By varying the gap size, both experimentally and theoretically, we show how changing the nanoparticle shape from sphere to cube alters coupling of s and l modes, resulting in strongly hybridized (j) modes. Through rigorous group representation analysis we identify their composition and coupling. This systematic analysis of the Purcell factors shows that modes with optical field perpendicular to the gap are best to probe the optical properties of cavity-bound emitters, such as single molecules.  ACS Photonics 2017, 4, 3, 469–475

Rigid gap nano-aggregates of Au nanoparticles formed using cucurbit[n]uril (CB[n]) molecules are used to investigate the competitive binding of ethanol and methanol in an aqueous environment. We show it is possible to detect as little as 0.1% methanol in water and a ten times higher affinity to methanol over ethanol, making this a useful technology for quality control in alcohol production. We demonstrate strong interaction effects in the SERS peaks, which we demonstrate are likely from the hydrogen bonding of water complexes in the vicinity of the CB[n]s.  Faraday Discuss., 2017, 205, 505-515

Trapping light with noble metal nanostructures overcomes the diffraction limit and can confine light to volumes typically on the order of 30 cubic nanometers. We found that individual atomic features inside the gap of a plasmonic nanoassembly can localize light to volumes well below 1 cubic nanometer (“picocavities”), enabling optical experiments on the atomic scale. These atomic features are dynamically formed and disassembled by laser irradiation. Although unstable at room temperature, picocavities can be stabilized at cryogenic temperatures, allowing single atomic cavities to be probed for many minutes. Unlike traditional optomechanical resonators, such extreme optical confinement yields a factor of 106 enhancement of optomechanical coupling between the picocavity field and vibrations of individual molecular bonds. This work sets the basis for developing nanoscale nonlinear quantum optics on the single-molecule level. Science 354(6313), 726-729 (2016)

Photon emitters placed in an optical cavity experience an environment that changes how they are coupled to the surrounding light field. In the weak-coupling regime, the extraction of light from the emitter is enhanced. But more profound effects emerge when single-emitter strong coupling occurs: mixed states are produced that are part light, part matter, forming building blocks for quantum information systems and for ultralow-power switches and lasers. Such cavity quantum electrodynamics has until now been the preserve of low temperatures and complicated fabrication methods, compromising its use. Here, by scaling the cavity volume to less than 40 cubic nanometres and using host–guest chemistry to align one to ten protectively isolated methylene-blue molecules, we reach the strong-coupling regime at room temperature and in ambient conditions. Dispersion curves from more than 50 such plasmonic nanocavities display characteristic light–matter mixing, with Rabi frequencies of 300 millielectronvolts for ten methylene-blue molecules, decreasing to 90 millielectronvolts for single molecules—matching quantitative models. Statistical analysis of vibrational spectroscopy time series and dark-field scattering spectra provides evidence of single-molecule strong coupling. This dressing of molecules with light can modify photochemistry, opening up the exploration of complex natural processes such as photosynthesis and the possibility of manipulating chemical bonds.  Nature volume 535, pages127–130 (2016)

Coupling noble metal nanoparticles by a 1 nm gap to an underlying gold mirror confines light to extremely small volumes, useful for sensing on the nanoscale. Individually measuring 10 000 of such gold nanoparticles of increasing size dramatically shows the different scaling of their optical scattering (far-field) and surface-enhanced Raman emission (SERS, near-field). Linear red-shifts of the coupled plasmon modes are seen with increasing size, matching theory. The total SERS from the few hundred molecules under each nanoparticle dramatically increases with increasing size. This scaling shows that maximum SERS emission is always produced from the largest nanoparticles, irrespective of tuning to any plasmonic resonances. Changes of particle facet with nanoparticle size result in vastly weaker scaling of the near-field SERS, without much modifying the far-field, and allows simple approaches for optimizing practical sensing.  J. Phys. Chem. Lett. 2016, 7, 12, 2264–2269

In recent years, single-molecule sensitivity achievable by surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) has been widely reported. We use this to investigate supramolecular host–guest chemistry with the macrocyclic host cucurbit[7]uril, on a few-to-single-molecule level. A nanogap geometry, comprising individual gold nanoparticles on a planar gold surface spaced by a single layer of molecules, gives intense SERS signals. Plasmonic coupling between the particle and the surface leads to strongly enhanced optical fields in the gap between them, with single-molecule sensitivity established using a modification of the well-known bianalyte method. Changes in the Raman modes of the host molecule are observed when single guests included inside its cavity internally stretch it. Anisotropic intermolecular interactions with the guest are found which show additional distinct features in the Raman modes of the host molecule.   J. Phys. Chem. Lett. 2016, 7, 4, 704–710

We develop an analytic circuit model for coupled plasmonic dimers separated by small gaps that provides a complete account of the optical resonance wavelength. Using a suitable equivalent circuit, it shows how partially conducting links can be treated and provides quantitative agreement with both experiment and full electromagnetic simulations. The model highlights how in the conducting regime, the kinetic inductance of the linkers set the spectral blue-shifts of the coupled plasmon. Optics Express Vol. 23, Issue 26, pp. 33255-33269 (2015)

The nanoparticle on mirror (NPoM) construct is ideal for the strong coupling of localized plasmons because of its simple fabrication and the nanometer-scale gaps it offers. Both of these are much harder to control in nanoparticle dimers. Even so, realizing controllable gap sizes in a NPoM remains difficult and continuous tunability is limited. Here, we use reactive metals as the mirror so that the spacing layer of resulting metal oxide can be easily and controllably created with specific thicknesses resulting in continuous tuning of the plasmonic coupling. Using Al as a case study, we contrast different approaches for oxidation including electrochemical oxidation, thermal annealing, oxygen plasma treatments, and photo-oxidation by laser irradiation. The thickness of the oxidation layer is calibrated with depth-mode X-ray photoemission spectroscopy (XPS). These all consistently show that increasing the thickness of the oxidation layer blue-shifts the plasmonic resonance peak while the transverse mode remains constant, which is well matched by simulations. Our approach provides a facile and reproducible method for scalable, local and controllable fabrication of NPoMs with tailored plasmonic coupling, suited for many applications of sensing, photochemistry, photoemission, and photovoltaics.  ACS Nano 2015, 9, 6, 6110–6118

Gold nanoparticles are separated above a planar gold film by 1.1 nm thick self-assembled molecular monolayers of different conductivities. Incremental replacement of the nonconductive molecules with a chemically equivalent conductive version differing by only one atom produces a strong 50 nm blue-shift of the coupled plasmon. With modeling this gives a conductance of 0.17G0 per biphenyl-4,4′-dithiol molecule and a total conductance across the plasmonic junction of 30G0. Our approach provides a reliable tool quantifying the number of molecules in each plasmonic hotspot, here <200.  Nano Lett. 2015, 15, 1, 669–674

Plasmonic coupling of gold nanoparticles to a gold surface creates intense plasmonic hot spots with large electromagnetic field-enhancements within the cavity formed by the two metallic surfaces. The localised field in such structures is extremely sensitive to morphological fluctuations and subtle changes in the dielectric properties of the cavity contents. Here, we present an optical method that pins down the properties of the gap contents with high sensitivity, termed normalising plasmon resonance (NPR) spectroscopy. We use this on a variety of ultrathin molecular spacers such as filled and empty cucurbiturils, and graphene. Clear differences in the spectral positions and intensities of plasmonic modes observed in the scattering spectrum resolve thickness differences of 0.1 nm, and refractive index changes from molecular filling.  Faraday Discuss., 2015, 178, 185-193