Optical, electronic and structural properties of nanocrystals fundamentally derive from crystal phase. This is especially important for polymorphic II–VI, III–V and I-III-VI 2 semiconductor materials such as cadmium selenide, which exist as two stable phases, cubic and hexagonal, each with distinct properties. However, standard crystallographic characterization through diffraction yields ambiguous phase signatures when nanocrystals are small or polytypic. Moreover, diffraction methods are low-throughput, incompatible with solution samples and require large sample quantities. Here we report the identification of unambiguous optical signatures of cubic and hexagonal phases in II–VI nanocrystals using absorption spectroscopy and first-principles electronic-structure theory. High-energy spectral features allow rapid identification of phase, even in small nanocrystals (∼2 nm), and may help predict polytypic nanocrystals from differential phase contributions. These theoretical and experimental insights provide simple and accurate optical crystallographic analysis for liquid-dispersed nanomaterials, to improve the precision of nanocrystal engineering and improve our understanding of nanocrystal reactions.
Identifying crystallographic phases in solution is not possible with standard diffraction methods. Here, Lim et al. demonstrate the in situ identification of cubic and hexagonal phases of cadmium selenide nanocrystals using optical methods based on first-principles electronic theory.