Detecting molecules at low levels is now made possible by arranging nanoparticles on nanowires. This technique enhances Raman spectroscopy, a technique that leverages the scattering of laser light to identify molecules.
Surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) uses electromagnetic fields to improve Raman scattering and boost sensitivity in standard dyes such as R6G by more than one billionfold.
The team decorated vertically aligned silicon nanowires with varying densities of silver nanoparticles, utilizing and enhancing the structure's 3-D shape. Their results, published in the Journal of Applied Physics show that their device was able to enhance the Raman signals for cytosine protein and ammonium perchlorate by a factor of 100,000.
Applying the necessary nanostructures to SERS devices remains a challenge for the field. Building these structures in three dimensions with silicon nanowires has garnered attention for their higher surface area and superior performance, but silicon nanowires are still expensive to produce.
Instead, the team was able to find a cheaper way to make silicon nanowires and used a technique called electroless etching to make a wide range of nanowires. They "decorated" these wires with silver nanoparticles with variable and controlled densities, which increased the nanowires' surface area.
"Optimizing these vertically aligned structures took a lot of time in the beginning," said Nageswara Rao, another of the paper's authors. "We increased the surface area and to do this we needed to change the aspect ratio."
After optimizing their system to detect Rhodamine dye on a nanomolar level, these new substrates the team built enhanced Raman sensitivity by a factor of 10,000 to 100,000. The substrates detected concentrations of cytosine, a nucleotide found in DNA, and ammonium perchlorate, a molecule with potential for detecting explosives, in as dilute concentrations as 50 and 10 micromolar, respectively.
The results have given the team reason to believe that it might soon be possible to detect compounds in concentrations on the scale of nanomolar or even picomolar, Nageswara Rao said. The team's work has opened several avenues for future research, from experimenting with different nanoparticles such as gold, increasing the sharpness of the nanowires or testing these devices across several types of molecules.