Structure and phase behavior of polymer-linked colloidal gels

MP Howard and RB Jadrich and BA Lindquist and F Khabaz and RT Bonnecaze and DJ Milliron and TM Truskett, JOURNAL OF CHEMICAL PHYSICS, 151, 124901 (2019).

DOI: 10.1063/1.5119359

Low-density "equilibrium" gels that consist of a percolated, kinetically arrested network of colloidal particles and are resilient to aging can be fabricated by restricting the number of effective bonds that form between the colloids. Valence-restricted patchy particles have long served as one archetypal example of such materials, but equilibrium gels can also be realized through a synthetically simpler and scalable strategy that introduces a secondary linker, such as a small ditopic molecule, to mediate the bonds between the colloids. Here, we consider the case where the ditopic linker molecules are low-molecular-weight polymers and demonstrate using a model colloid-polymer mixture how macroscopic properties such as the phase behavior as well as the microstructure of the gel can be designed through the polymer molecular weight and concentration. The low-density window for equilibrium gel formation is favorably expanded using longer linkers while necessarily increasing the spacing between all colloids. However, we show that blends of linkers with different sizes enable wider variation in microstructure for a given target phase behavior. Our computational study suggests a robust and tunable strategy for the experimental realization of equilibrium colloidal gels.

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