Separation and quantification of quantum dots and dissolved metal cations by size exclusion chromatography–ICP-MS
The prevalence of engineered metallic nanoparticles within electronic products has evoked a need to assess their occurrence and fate within environmental systems upon potential release of these nanoparticles. Quantum dots (QDs) are mixed-metal nanocrystals with the smallest of particle sizes (2–10 nm) that readily leach heavy metal cations in water, potentially creating a co-occurrence of nanoparticulate and dissolved metal pollutants. In this report, we develop a size exclusion chromatography–inductively coupled plasma–mass spectrometry method (SEC-ICP-MS) for the rapid separation and quantification of ~5-nm-sized CdSe/ZnS QDs and dissolved Cd2+ and Zn2+ cations in water. The SEC-ICP-MS method provided a wide chromatographic separation of CdSe/ZnS QDs and dissolved Cd2+ and Zn2+ cations only when using the smallest SEC column pore size available and an eluent composition that prevented loss of metals to column polymer surfaces by using a surfactant to ensure elution of QDs (ammonium lauryl sulfate) and a complexing ligand to ensure elution of metal cations (ethylenediaminetetraacetate). Detection limits were between 0.2 and 2 µg L–1 for Cd2+ and Zn2+ among dissolved cation and QD phases, and ranges of linearity covered two to three orders of magnitude. Gold nanoparticles of sizes 5, 10, 20 and 50 nm were also effectively separated from dissolved Au3+ cations, illustrating the method applicability to a wide range of nanoparticle sizes and compositions. QD and dissolved metal concentrations measured by SEC-ICP-MS were comparable to those measured using the more conventional method of centrifuge ultrafiltration on split samples for dissolved and total metals. The applicability of the SEC-ICP-MS method to environmental systems was verified by measuring QDs and dissolved metals added to samples of natural waters. The method was also applied to monitoring CdSe/ZnS dissolution kinetics in an urban river water. The SEC-ICP-MS developed here may offer improved automation for characterising heterogeneous suspensions containing >1 µg L–1 heavy metals.