Polymer directed aggregation and dispersion of anisotropic nanoparticles

TK Patra and JK Singh, SOFT MATTER, 10, 1823-1830 (2014).

DOI: 10.1039/c3sm52216d

The aggregation and dispersion of two anisotropic nanoparticles (NPs), cubes and tetrahedrons, in a polymer matrix are studied in this work using coarse-grained molecular dynamics simulations. We present the phase diagrams of NP-polymer composites, depicting microscopically phase-separated, dispersed, and bridged cubes and tetrahedrons in a polymer matrix, which depend on the interaction between the NPs and polymer (epsilon(np)), along with the NPs' volume fraction (phi). The microscopic phase separation occurs at very low epsilon(np), where NPs self-organize into multidimensional structures, depending on phi. In particular, for tetrahedrons, a cross-over from an ordered spherical aggregate to a disordered sheet-like aggregate is observed with increasing phi. In the case of cubes, a transition from cubic array -> square column -> square array (sheet) is identified with increasing f. The clusters of NPs are characterized by their asphericity and principal radii of gyration. The free energy profile for a structured assembly is estimated, which clearly shows that the successful assembly of NPs is energetically favorable at a lower temperature. However, there exists an energy barrier for the successful assembly of all the NPs in the system. At intermediate epsilon(np), a transition from a clustered state to a state comprising dispersed cubes and tetrahedrons in a polymer matrix is observed. At higher epsilon(np), a further transition takes place, where gas-like dispersed NPs form a liquid-like aggregate via polymer layers. Therefore, the findings in this work illustrate that the effective interaction between anisotropic NPs in a polymer matrix is very diverse, which can generate multidimensional structured assemblies, with the disordered clustering, dispersion, and bridging-induced aggregation of NPs.

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