The effect of nanochannel length on in situ loading times of diffusion-propelled nanoparticles in liquid cell electron microscopy

Liquid cell transmission electron microscopy is a powerful tool for visualizing nanoparticle (NP) assemblies in liquid environments with nanometer resolution. However, it remains a challenge to control the NP concentration in the high aspect ratio liquid enclosure where the diffusion of dispersed NPs is affected by the exposed surface of the liquid cell walls. Here, we introduce a semi-empirical model based on the 1D diffusion equation, to predict the NP loading time as they pass through the nanochannel into the imaging volume of the liquid cell. We show that loading of NPs into the imaging volume of the liquid cell may take several days if NPs are prone to attach to the surface of the mm-long nanochannel when using an industry-standard flat microchip. As a means to facilitate mass transport via diffusion, we tested a liquid cell incorporating a microchannel geometry resulting in a NP loading time in the order minutes that allowed us to observe the formation of a randomly oriented self-assembled monolayer in situ using scanning transmission electron microscopy.