ACS Nano, 2018, vol 12, 6, pp. 5969-5977
Being able to predict and tune the colloidal stability of nanoparticles is essential for a wide range of applications, yet our ability to do so is currently poor due to a lack of understanding of how they interact with one another. Here, we show that the agglomeration of apolar particles is dominated by either the core or the ligand shell, depending on the particle size and materials. We do this by using Small-Angle X-ray Scattering and molecular dynamics simulations to characterize the interaction between hexadecanethiol passivated gold nanoparticles in decane solvent. For smaller particles, the agglomeration temperature and interparticle spacing are determined by ordering of the ligand shell into bundles of aligned ligands that attract one another and interlock. In contrast, the agglomeration of larger particles is driven by van der Waals attraction between the gold cores, which eventually becomes strong enough to compress the ligand shell. Our results provide a microscopic description of the forces that determine the colloidal stability of apolar nanoparticles and explain why classical colloid theory fails.