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Nucleation and growth of magnetite from solution


The formation of crystalline materials from solution is usually described by the nucleation and growth theory, where atoms or molecules are assumed to assemble directly from solution1. For numerous systems, the formation of the thermodynamically stable crystalline phase is additionally preceded by metastable intermediates 2. More complex pathways have recently been proposed, such as aggregational processes of nanoparticle precursors or pre-nucleation clusters, which seem to contradict the classical theory3,4,5,6. Here we show by cryogenic transmission electron microscopy that the nucleation and growth of magnetite—a magnetic iron oxide with numerous bio- and nanotechnological applications7—proceed through rapid agglomeration of nanometric primary particles and that in contrast to the nucleation of other minerals5, no intermediate amorphous bulk precursor phase is involved. We also demonstrate that these observations can be described within the framework of classical nucleation theory.

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Figure 1: Cryo-TEM images of the nucleation and growth process of co-precipitated magnetite.
Figure 2: Magnetite nanoparticle growth.
Figure 3: Model crystallization scenarios from atoms/molecules and primary particles/clusters.
Figure 4: Phase diagram with the estimated ranges for surface- and bulk-energy ratios for ferrihydrite (Fh)/magnetite (Mt) marked by a rectangle.


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H. Runge, R. Pitschke, S. Siegel and C. Li are acknowledged for technical assistance with electron microscopy and at the synchrotron. F. Nudelman helped prepare cryo-TEM samples. We thank E. Zolotoyabko, J. De Yoreo and M. Antonietti for discussions. This research was supported in D.F’s laboratory by the Max Planck Society, and a starting grant from the ERC (Project MB2, no. 256915).

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Authors and Affiliations



J.B. and C.L.C. carried out precipitation experiments. J.B. performed X-ray diffraction, TEM, analysed data and wrote the manuscript. P.H.H.B. performed cryo-TEM. A.D. carried out ferrihydrite experiments, performed cryo-TEM and analysed data. P.F. and J.B. developed the model. P.F., N.A.J.M.S. and D.F. supervised the project, analysed data and wrote the manuscript. All authors discussed the results and revised the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Damien Faivre.

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Max Planck Innovation has applied for the following patent: J. Baumgartner & D. Faivre, Process for preparing magnetite or maghemite nanoparticles with controlled size using mild conditions, international patent’s application number WO2010EP03983 priority date July 1st, 2010.

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Baumgartner, J., Dey, A., Bomans, P. et al. Nucleation and growth of magnetite from solution. Nature Mater 12, 310–314 (2013).

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