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Langmuir. 2013 Jun 11;29(23):6876-83. doi: 10.1021/la4005328. Epub 2013 May 28.

Atomic-scale surface roughness of rutile and implications for organic molecule adsorption.

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  • 1HRAEM/IIC Facility, Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland 21218, United States.


Crystal surfaces provide physical interfaces between the geosphere and biosphere. It follows that the arrangement of atoms at the surfaces of crystals profoundly influences biological components at many levels, from cells through biopolymers to single organic molecules. Many studies have focused on the crystal-molecule interface in water using large, flat single crystals. However, little is known about atomic-scale surface structures of the nanometer- to micrometer-sized crystals of simple metal oxides typically used in batch adsorption experiments under conditions relevant to biogeochemistry and the origins of life. Here, we present atomic-resolution microscopy data with unprecedented detail of the circumferences of nanosized rutile (α-TiO2) crystals previously used in studies of the adsorption of protons, cations, and amino acids. The data suggest that one-third of the {110} faces, the largest faces on individual crystals, consist of steps at the atomic scale. The steps have the orientation to provide undercoordinated Ti atoms of the type and abundance for adsorption of amino acids as inferred from previous surface complexation modeling of batch adsorption data. A remarkably uniform pattern of step proportions emerges: the step proportions are independent of surface roughness and reflect their relative surface energies. Consequently, the external morphology of rutile nanometer- to micrometer-sized crystals imaged at the coarse scale of scanning electron microscope images is not an accurate indicator of the atomic smoothness or of the proportions of the steps present. Overall, our data strongly suggest that amino acids attach at these steps on the {110} surfaces of rutile.

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