The optical properties of core-shell CdSe-ZnS quantum dots (QDs) are characterized by complex photophysics leading to difficulties in interpreting quantitative measurements based on QD emission. By comparing the pH dependence of fluorescence of single QDs to that of an ensemble, we have been able to propose a molecular scale model of how QD surface chemical and physical processes are affected by protons and oxygen. We show that the connection between the ensemble fluorescence intensity and the single QD fluorescence properties such as dark fraction, blinking, particle brightness, and a multiexponential fluorescence lifetime decay is not trivial. The ensemble fluorescence intensity is more weakly dependent on pH than the single particle fluorescence which, together with fluorescence lifetime analysis, provided evidence that the dark fraction of QDs emits photons with low quantum efficiency and long lifetime. We uncovered two surface-dependent mechanisms that affected the fluorescence emission: an immediate physical effect of charges surrounding the QD and an irreversible chemical effect from reaction of the H(+) and O(2) with the QD shell surface. These results will have important implications for those using QD-based fluorescence lifetime imaging as well as for proper implementation of these probes for quantitative cellular imaging applications.
© 2011 American Chemical Society