Difference between revisions of "The Role of Polymer Polydispersity in Phase Separation and Gelation in Colloid−Polymer Mixtures"

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Surprisingly, at intermediate polymer concentrations, there is a fundamentally different behavior. Initially, the interface slowly moves but, after some time, abruptly and rapidly falls, as shown in Figure 1 for = 0.1 and cp = 7.5 mg/mL (open circles),(19) a behavior which is similar to transient gelation,(9-11) where a gel forms and subsequently collapses under the influence of gravitational stresses.
 
Surprisingly, at intermediate polymer concentrations, there is a fundamentally different behavior. Initially, the interface slowly moves but, after some time, abruptly and rapidly falls, as shown in Figure 1 for = 0.1 and cp = 7.5 mg/mL (open circles),(19) a behavior which is similar to transient gelation,(9-11) where a gel forms and subsequently collapses under the influence of gravitational stresses.
 +
 
Using the temporal evolution of the interface as a criterion, we summarize the behavior of our colloid/polymer system in a -cp diagram, shown in Figure 2. For low or low cp, the system undergoes hindered sedimentation (closed squares), consistent with the absence of gelation. By contrast, at high or high cp, the system exhibits a compression behavior (closed triangles) indicating the presence of a particle gel. Between these two behaviors, for intermediate and intermediate cp, we find a region in the -cp diagram corresponding to a behavior which is reminiscent of transient gelation (open circles).
 
Using the temporal evolution of the interface as a criterion, we summarize the behavior of our colloid/polymer system in a -cp diagram, shown in Figure 2. For low or low cp, the system undergoes hindered sedimentation (closed squares), consistent with the absence of gelation. By contrast, at high or high cp, the system exhibits a compression behavior (closed triangles) indicating the presence of a particle gel. Between these two behaviors, for intermediate and intermediate cp, we find a region in the -cp diagram corresponding to a behavior which is reminiscent of transient gelation (open circles).
  
 
Interestingly, this transient behavior is linked to a coarsening of the structure, as shown in Supporting Information, Movie S2, for cp= 5 mg/mL. This coarsening, which is reminiscent of “curding”, precedes the collapse of the structure. Thus, although collapse must result from gravitational stress, it is unclear whether this external stress is the ultimate cause of the collapse, or whether the coarsening behavior that precedes the collapse is, in some way, implicated in the collapse itself. To investigate this, we prepare samples at intermediate and cp and vary both the initial height and the density difference between the particles and the solvent, by using water/D2O mixtures, while keeping both and cp constant. In this way, we span 3 orders of magnitude in the magnitude of the total gravitationally induced stress at the bottom of the gel σg = Δρgh0, from 10−3 Pa to 1 Pa; this is the “weight” of the gel, which is supported at the bottom of the sample. We find that the structure of the colloid/polymer mixtures coarsens to some extent before it actually collapses due to the gravitational stress. Interestingly, the time for this coarsening to become appreciable in our images does not change with σg and always remains equal to 15 min.
 
Interestingly, this transient behavior is linked to a coarsening of the structure, as shown in Supporting Information, Movie S2, for cp= 5 mg/mL. This coarsening, which is reminiscent of “curding”, precedes the collapse of the structure. Thus, although collapse must result from gravitational stress, it is unclear whether this external stress is the ultimate cause of the collapse, or whether the coarsening behavior that precedes the collapse is, in some way, implicated in the collapse itself. To investigate this, we prepare samples at intermediate and cp and vary both the initial height and the density difference between the particles and the solvent, by using water/D2O mixtures, while keeping both and cp constant. In this way, we span 3 orders of magnitude in the magnitude of the total gravitationally induced stress at the bottom of the gel σg = Δρgh0, from 10−3 Pa to 1 Pa; this is the “weight” of the gel, which is supported at the bottom of the sample. We find that the structure of the colloid/polymer mixtures coarsens to some extent before it actually collapses due to the gravitational stress. Interestingly, the time for this coarsening to become appreciable in our images does not change with σg and always remains equal to 15 min.
  
The Role of Polymer Polydispersity in Phase Separation and Gelation in Colloid−Polymer Mixtures
 
  
    Abstract
+
This suggests that the coarsening behavior, even when the densities of the colloids and solvent are not matched, is due to spinodal decomposition. However, if the densities are not matched, spinodal decomposition is interrupted by the presence of gravitational stresses. We therefore propose that the nonadsorbing polymer induces the requisite attraction to initiate spinodal decomposition of the mixtures. The initially homogeneous mixture then evolves into a bicontinuous network of colloid-poor and colloid-rich domains. The structure continues to coarsen and eventually looses mechanical strength; it fractures and collapses under the presence of the gravitational stress.
    HTMLFull Text HTML
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    Supporting Info
 
    Figures
 
    References
 
    Citing Articles
 
 
J. J. Lietor-Santos†§, C. Kim†, M. L. Lynch‡, A. Fernandez-Nieves†§* and D. A. Weitz†
 
† School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Department of Physics, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
 
‡ Procter & Gamble Co., Corporation Research Division, Miami Valley Lab, Cincinnati, Ohio 45252
 
Langmuir, 2010, 26 (5), pp 3174–3178
 
DOI: 10.1021/la903127a
 
Publication Date (Web): November 3, 2009
 
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society
 
*Corresponding author. E-mail: alberto.fernandez@physics.gatech.edu., §
 
 
Present address: School of Physics, Georgia Institute of Technology, 837 State Street, Atlanta, GA 30332.
 
,
 
 
Present address: Chemical Physics Interdisciplinary Program, Liquid Crystal Institute, Kent State University, Kent, OH 44242.
 
CASSection:
 
Surface Chemistry and Colloids
 
Abstract
 
Abstract Image
 
 
Mixtures of nonadsorbing polymer and colloidal particles exhibit a range of different morphologies depending on the particle and polymer concentrations and their relative size ratios. These can be very important for technological applications, where gelation can produce a weak solidlike structure that can help reduce phase separation, extending product shelf life. However, industrial products are typically formulated with polydisperse polymers, and the consequences of this on the phase behavior of the mixture are not known. We investigate the role of polymer polydispersity and show that a small amount of larger polymer in a distribution of nominally much smaller polymer can drastically modify the behavior. It can induce formation of a solidlike gel structure, abetted by the small polymer, but still allow further evolution of the phase separation process, as is seen with a monodisperse distribution of larger polymer. This coarsening ultimately leads to gravitational collapse. We describe the full phase behavior for polydisperse polymer mixtures and account for the origin of the behavior through measurements of the structure and dynamics and by comparing to the behavior with monodisperse polymers.
 
 
Introduction
 
Addition of nonadsorbing polymer to a colloidal suspension induces a very rich range of microstructures, whose nature depends on the particle and polymer concentrations and the relative size of the particles and polymer.(1, 2) The addition of the polymer leads to a depletion attraction that is capable of inducing a fluid−solid transition, resulting from the formation of a gel, a connected network that spans the space and can support weak stresses. Such gels are extensively used in commercial applications such as personal care or food products, to help stabilize the system against sedimentation, thereby precluding phase separation, and increasing product shelf life.(3-5) The nature of the fluid−solid transition depends on the range of the depletion attraction, which, in turn, depends on the ratio of the size of the polymer to the colloidal particle. For short-range interactions, gelation is induced by spinodal decomposition;(6)the system undergoes a gas−liquid phase separation which is interrupted by the dynamical arrest of the particles in the colloid-rich region, leading to formation of the gel. By contrast, for larger ranges of the attraction, phase separation can proceed to completion, without being interrupted by dynamic arrest leading to gelation.(7, 8) However, in the presence of gravitational effects the structure may no longer be capable of sustaining its own weight; instead, it collapses, disrupting the phase separation process(8) or rupturing the gel that was previously formed.(9-11) This is an undesirable effect technologically, as it can dramatically shorten the shelf life of a commercial product. This suggests that the use of shorter polymers at sufficiently high concentration is most likely of greatest practical use. However, technological polymers are very rarely monodisperse, and thus the microstructures and their behavior may be drastically modified. However, despite the practical importance, the gravitational behavior of colloid−polymer mixtures using polydisperse polymers has never been investigated.
 
In this paper, we investigate in detail the behavior of model colloidal particles mixed with nonadsorbing polymer with a polydisperse size distribution, similar to that often found in commercial samples. We use a predominantly short-range interaction to induce gelation. However, we show that the presence of a small concentration of much larger polymers can have dramatic consequences on the behavior. We find that only those mixtures in the proximity of the liquid−gel boundary collapse under the influence of gravitational effects. Interestingly, however, we find that the gravitational stress imposed on the network is not the ultimate cause for this behavior. Instead, it results from coarsening of the particle network due to spinodal decomposition, which results from the long-range attraction induced by the fraction of the polymer distribution with long chain lengths. We verify this by comparison to the behavior of a monodisperse polymer mixture for the same range of attraction, where the coarsening of the structure disappears.
 
 
Experimental System and Methods
 
We use an aqueous dispersion of polystyrene particles with a density ρ = 1.057 g/cm3 and an average radius a = 1.5 μm, as determined by dynamic light scattering.(12, 13) We use polyethyleneglycol (PEG) (American Polymer Standard Co.) with an average molecular weight Mw = 475 500 g/mol, polydispersity index Mw/Mn = 2.63, and mean radius of gyration r̅g = 40 nm, which we estimate from the average molecular weight.(14) Here, Mw and Mn are the mass- and number-averaged molecular weights, respectively. We also add a 1:1 salt, NaClO4, at 5 mM to reduce electrostatic interactions. We homogenize the samples by tumbling for 24 h.
 
 
Results and Discussion
 
The rate of sedimentation of the colloidal particles is dependent on the microstructure of the colloid−polymer mixture. Sedimentation is driven by the density mismatch between the solvent and the colloidal particles, Δρ, that results in a body force on the individual particles, F = 4/3πΔρga3. For a particle suspension, the settling rate is hindered by solvent backflow.(4)
 
However, settling in particle gels is more complicated as the gravitational forces act on and are transmitted through the entire network, resulting in a distinctive settling behavior. By monitoring the time-dependent height profile of the sample as it sediments, it is possible to distinguish between the two cases.
 
figure
 
 
Figure 1. Experimental height profiles at different polymer concentrations: () cp = 1 mg/mL, () cp = 7.5 mg/mL, and (▲) cp = 20 mg/mL. We measure the height from the bottom of the cell, as shown in the schematic, where h0 = (1.90 ± 0.05) cm is the initial height. (Upper inset) Expanded details of the initial evolution for a time window of 5 h.
 
At low polymer concentration, the depletion-induced attraction between particles is small and the interface immediately begins to fall, with a constant rate, v = (1.5 ± 0.2) 10−7 m/s, as shown in Figure 1 for a polymer concentration cp = 1 mg/mL and a particle volume fraction = 0.1 (closed squares); this value is consistent with hindered settling models for dispersed particles,(15) where with η the viscosity of the solution. At high polymer concentration, the attraction between particles is large. As a result, the height of the interface evolves in a different fashion, as shown in Figure 1 for cp = 20 mg/mL at the same (closed triangles). The height evolution in this case quantitatively agrees with poroelastic models for the gravitational compression of particle gels.(16-18) In this case, the height evolution of the interface is determined by the balance of the gravitational and elastic stresses imposed on the network, and by the viscous stress due to solvent backflow through the network as it is compressed.
 
Surprisingly, at intermediate polymer concentrations, there is a fundamentally different behavior. Initially, the interface slowly moves but, after some time, abruptly and rapidly falls, as shown in Figure 1 for = 0.1 and cp = 7.5 mg/mL (open circles),(19) a behavior which is similar to transient gelation,(9-11) where a gel forms and subsequently collapses under the influence of gravitational stresses.
 
Using the temporal evolution of the interface as a criterion, we summarize the behavior of our colloid/polymer system in a -cp diagram, shown in Figure 2. For low or low cp, the system undergoes hindered sedimentation (closed squares), consistent with the absence of gelation. By contrast, at high or high cp, the system exhibits a compression behavior (closed triangles) indicating the presence of a particle gel. Between these two behaviors, for intermediate and intermediate cp, we find a region in the -cp diagram corresponding to a behavior which is reminiscent of transient gelation (open circles).
 
Interestingly, this transient behavior is linked to a coarsening of the structure, as shown in Supporting Information, Movie S2, for cp= 5 mg/mL. This coarsening, which is reminiscent of “curding”, precedes the collapse of the structure. Thus, although collapse must result from gravitational stress, it is unclear whether this external stress is the ultimate cause of the collapse, or whether the coarsening behavior that precedes the collapse is, in some way, implicated in the collapse itself. To investigate this, we prepare samples at intermediate and cp and vary both the initial height and the density difference between the particles and the solvent, by using water/D2O mixtures, while keeping both and cp constant. In this way, we span 3 orders of magnitude in the magnitude of the total gravitationally induced stress at the bottom of the gel σg = Δρgh0, from 10−3 Pa to 1 Pa; this is the “weight” of the gel, which is supported at the bottom of the sample. We find that the structure of the colloid/polymer mixtures coarsens to some extent before it actually collapses due to the gravitational stress. Interestingly, the time for this coarsening to become appreciable in our images does not change with σg and always remains equal to 15 min.
 
figure
 
 
Figure 2. Diagram for the behavior of mixtures of polystyrene colloidal particles and polyethylene glycol polymer as a function of the particle volume fraction and the polymer concentration cp: () sedimentation; () collapse; (▲) compression.
 
 
As a result, we conclude that the coarsening behavior is not dependent on the gravitational stress, thereby implying that the presence of this stress is ultimately not the mechanism responsible for the temporal evolution of our samples. To further investigate this, we prepare a density-matched sample inside a glass cuvette of height 4 cm and an optical path length of 1 mm, and follow the time evolution of the sample using a CCD camera and a high magnification objective, focused on a small region in the middle of the cuvette. We do not observe any collapse of the structure within the experimental time-window since σg is so small. However, as time proceeds, the system separates into colloid-poor and colloid-rich regions, as shown in the optical images of Figure 3 and in Supporting Information, Movie S3, where darker regions correspond to colloid-poor regions and brighter regions correspond to colloid-rich regions.
 
As a result, we conclude that the coarsening behavior is not dependent on the gravitational stress, thereby implying that the presence of this stress is ultimately not the mechanism responsible for the temporal evolution of our samples. To further investigate this, we prepare a density-matched sample inside a glass cuvette of height 4 cm and an optical path length of 1 mm, and follow the time evolution of the sample using a CCD camera and a high magnification objective, focused on a small region in the middle of the cuvette. We do not observe any collapse of the structure within the experimental time-window since σg is so small. However, as time proceeds, the system separates into colloid-poor and colloid-rich regions, as shown in the optical images of Figure 3 and in Supporting Information, Movie S3, where darker regions correspond to colloid-poor regions and brighter regions correspond to colloid-rich regions.
  
This suggests that the coarsening behavior, even when the densities of the colloids and solvent are not matched, is due to spinodal decomposition. However, if the densities are not matched, spinodal decomposition is interrupted by the presence of gravitational stresses. We therefore propose that the nonadsorbing polymer induces the requisite attraction to initiate spinodal decomposition of the mixtures. The initially homogeneous mixture then evolves into a bicontinuous network of colloid-poor and colloid-rich domains. The structure continues to coarsen and eventually looses mechanical strength; it fractures and collapses under the presence of the gravitational stress.
 
 
Surprisingly, however, the typical range of the attractive interaction in our experiments is which is much lower than those that are typically required to induce phase separation. However, this value is based on the average molecular weight of the polymer, Mw; because of the polydispersity of the polymer, there is a sizable fraction of chains which are several orders of magnitude larger than the mean, as shown in Figure 5.(25) Despite the relatively smaller concentration of these larger chains, we hypothesize that they nevertheless determine both the magnitude and width of the attraction, resulting in a weaker and wider attraction than would be expected from the peak of the Mw distribution, and causing the mixtures to exhibit a transient gel behavior.
 
Surprisingly, however, the typical range of the attractive interaction in our experiments is which is much lower than those that are typically required to induce phase separation. However, this value is based on the average molecular weight of the polymer, Mw; because of the polydispersity of the polymer, there is a sizable fraction of chains which are several orders of magnitude larger than the mean, as shown in Figure 5.(25) Despite the relatively smaller concentration of these larger chains, we hypothesize that they nevertheless determine both the magnitude and width of the attraction, resulting in a weaker and wider attraction than would be expected from the peak of the Mw distribution, and causing the mixtures to exhibit a transient gel behavior.
 
To test this hypothesis, we perform the same experiments with monodisperse polymer. Mixtures were prepared with the same colloidal particles but using a PEG (American Polymer Standard Company, Mentor, OH) of Mw = 438 000 g/mol, but with a much smaller polydispersity index, Mw/Mn = 1.18. In these mixtures, the coarsening behavior is not observed. Instead, we observe only hindered sedimentation at low polymer concentrations and gel compression at high polymer concentrations, as shown in Figure 6 for = 0.05 and cp ranging from 5 mg/mL (right vial) to 60 mg/mL (left vial). The transition between these two behaviors occurs between cp = 20 mg/mL and cp = 30 mg/mL; for cp = 20 mg/mL, the system exhibits hindered sedimentation, as shown by the squares in Figure 6b, while for cp = 30 mg/mL, the system exhibits gravitational compression, as shown by the circles in Figure 6b. This behavior is in striking contrast to that observed with the polydisperse polymer, emphasizing the important role of the largest polymer chains on the gravitational stability of colloid/polymer mixtures when the polymer is polydisperse, and confirming our hypothesis that it is these larger polymer chains that determine the behavior of the mixture. However, by comparing the behavior presented in Figure 6 with that of the polydisperse case (see Figure 2, for = 0.05), we observe that also in this case a polymer concentration of cp ≈ 20 mg/mL marks the formation of a gel that compresses in time. Thus, at high polymer concentrations the overall behavior of the system is mainly controlled by the smaller rather than by the larger polymer chains. It is thus apparent that to properly account for the behavior of colloid−polymer mixtures prepared with polydisperse polymer, the full nature of the polymer distribution must be considered. This is of particular importance in practical applications of these mixtures.
 
  
 
==Conclusion==
 
==Conclusion==

Revision as of 20:24, 25 October 2011

Entry by Emily Redston, AP 225, Fall 2011

Work in progress

Reference

The Role of Polymer Polydispersity in Phase Separation and Gelation in Colloid−Polymer Mixtures by J. J. Lietor-Santos, C. Kim, M. L. Lynch, A. Fernandez-Nieves, and D. A. Weitz. Langmuir 26 3174–3178 (2010)

Introduction

Mixtures of non-adsorbing polymer and colloidal particles exhibit a very rich range of morphologies. These microstructures depend on the particle and polymer concentrations as well as the relative size of the particles and polymer. The addition of the polymer to a colloidal suspension leads to a depletion attraction that is capable of inducing a fluid-solid transition (i.e. forming a gel). A gel is defined as a connected network that spans space and can support weak stresses. Gels are extensively used in commercial applications, such as personal care or food products, where they are able to help stabilize the system against sedimentation. In this manner, gels can reduce phase separation, which will increase product shelf life. The nature of the fluid-solid transition depends on the range of the depletion attraction, which, in turn, depends on the ratio of the size of the polymer to the colloidal particle. For short-range interactions, gelation is induced by spinodal decomposition. A gel is formed because, when the system undergoes a gas-liquid phase separation, it is interrupted by the dynamical arrest of the particles in the colloid-rich region. By contrast, for larger ranges of the attraction, phase separation can proceed to completion, without being interrupted by dynamic arrest.

However, in the presence of gravitational effects, the structure may no longer be capable of sustaining its own weight; instead it collapses, disrupting the phase separation process or rupturing the gel that was previously formed. This is obviously an undesirable effect as it can dramatically shorten the shelf life of a commercial product. This suggests that the use of shorter polymers at sufficiently high concentration is of greatest practical interest. However, technological polymers are very rarely monodisperse, and thus the microstructures and their behavior may be drastically modified. However, despite the practical importance, the gravitational behavior of colloid-polymer mixtures using polydisperse polymers has never been investigated. It is not known how the polydispersity of polymers effects the phase behavior of the mixture.

In this paper, the authors investigate the behavior of model colloidal particles mixed with nonadsorbing polymer with a polydisperse size distribution, similar to that often found in commercial samples. Ultimately they find that the presence of even a small amount of large polymer in a distribution of nominally much smaller polymer can drastically modify the behavior.

Sample Preparation

The authors used an aqueous dispersion of polystyrene particles with a density <math>\rho = 1.057 g/cm^3</math> and an average radius <math>a = 1.5 \mu m</math>. They also used polyethyleneglycol (PEG) with an average molecular weight <math>M_w = 475500 g/mol</math>, polydispersity index <math>M_w/ M_n = 2.63</math>, and mean radius of gyration <math>r_g = 40 nm</math>. Here, <math>M_w</math> and <math>M_n</math> are the mass- and number-averaged molecular weights, respectively. Salt was also added to reduce electrostatic interactions.

Experiments and Results

Figure 1. Experimental height profiles at different polymer concentrations: (\blacksquare) cp = 1 mg/mL, (<math>\circ</math>) cp = 7.5 mg/mL, and (▲) cp = 20 mg/mL. We measure the height from the bottom of the cell, as shown in the schematic, where h0 = (1.90 ± 0.05) cm is the initial height. (Upper inset) Expanded details of the initial evolution for a time window of 5 h.
Figure 2. Diagram for the behavior of mixtures of polystyrene colloidal particles and polyethylene glycol polymer as a function of the particle volume fraction and the polymer concentration cp: () sedimentation; () collapse; (▲) compression.

The rate of sedimentation of the colloidal particles is dependent on the microstructure of the colloid-polymer mixture. Sedimentation is driven by the density mismatch between the solvent and the colloidal particles, Δρ, that results in a body force on the individual particles, F=4/3πΔρg<math>a^3</math>. For a particle suspension, the settling rate is hindered by solvent backflow. However, settling in particle gels is more complicated as the gravitational forces act on and are transmitted through the entire network, resulting in a distinctive settling behavior. By monitoring the time-dependent height profile of the sample as it sediments, it is possible to distinguish between the two cases.

At low polymer concentration, the depletion-induced attraction between particles is small and the interface immediately begins to fall, with a constant rate, <math>v = (1.5 \pm 0.2) 10^{-7} m/s</math>, as shown in Figure 1 for a polymer concentration <math>c_p =1 mg/mL</math> and a particle volume fraction <math>\phi</math> = 0.1 (closed squares); this value is consistent with hindered settling models for dispersed particles, where

<math> v = \frac{2}{9} \frac{\Delta \rho g a^2}{\eta} (1-\phi)^{5.5} = 1.8 \times 10^{-7} m/s</math>

where <math>\eta</math> is the viscosity of the solution. At high polymer concentration, the attraction between particles is large. As a result, the height of the interface evolves in a different fashion, as shown in Figure 1 for <math>c_p =20 mg/mL </math> at the same <math>\phi</math> (closed triangles). The height evolution in this case quantitatively agrees with poroelastic models for the gravitational compression of particle gels. In this case, the height evolution of the interface is determined by the balance of the gravitational and elastic stresses imposed on the network, and by the viscous stress due to solvent backflow through the network as it is compressed.

Surprisingly, at intermediate polymer concentrations, there is a fundamentally different behavior. Initially, the interface slowly moves but, after some time, abruptly and rapidly falls, as shown in Figure 1 for = 0.1 and cp = 7.5 mg/mL (open circles),(19) a behavior which is similar to transient gelation,(9-11) where a gel forms and subsequently collapses under the influence of gravitational stresses.

Using the temporal evolution of the interface as a criterion, we summarize the behavior of our colloid/polymer system in a -cp diagram, shown in Figure 2. For low or low cp, the system undergoes hindered sedimentation (closed squares), consistent with the absence of gelation. By contrast, at high or high cp, the system exhibits a compression behavior (closed triangles) indicating the presence of a particle gel. Between these two behaviors, for intermediate and intermediate cp, we find a region in the -cp diagram corresponding to a behavior which is reminiscent of transient gelation (open circles).

Interestingly, this transient behavior is linked to a coarsening of the structure, as shown in Supporting Information, Movie S2, for cp= 5 mg/mL. This coarsening, which is reminiscent of “curding”, precedes the collapse of the structure. Thus, although collapse must result from gravitational stress, it is unclear whether this external stress is the ultimate cause of the collapse, or whether the coarsening behavior that precedes the collapse is, in some way, implicated in the collapse itself. To investigate this, we prepare samples at intermediate and cp and vary both the initial height and the density difference between the particles and the solvent, by using water/D2O mixtures, while keeping both and cp constant. In this way, we span 3 orders of magnitude in the magnitude of the total gravitationally induced stress at the bottom of the gel σg = Δρgh0, from 10−3 Pa to 1 Pa; this is the “weight” of the gel, which is supported at the bottom of the sample. We find that the structure of the colloid/polymer mixtures coarsens to some extent before it actually collapses due to the gravitational stress. Interestingly, the time for this coarsening to become appreciable in our images does not change with σg and always remains equal to 15 min.


This suggests that the coarsening behavior, even when the densities of the colloids and solvent are not matched, is due to spinodal decomposition. However, if the densities are not matched, spinodal decomposition is interrupted by the presence of gravitational stresses. We therefore propose that the nonadsorbing polymer induces the requisite attraction to initiate spinodal decomposition of the mixtures. The initially homogeneous mixture then evolves into a bicontinuous network of colloid-poor and colloid-rich domains. The structure continues to coarsen and eventually looses mechanical strength; it fractures and collapses under the presence of the gravitational stress.

As a result, we conclude that the coarsening behavior is not dependent on the gravitational stress, thereby implying that the presence of this stress is ultimately not the mechanism responsible for the temporal evolution of our samples. To further investigate this, we prepare a density-matched sample inside a glass cuvette of height 4 cm and an optical path length of 1 mm, and follow the time evolution of the sample using a CCD camera and a high magnification objective, focused on a small region in the middle of the cuvette. We do not observe any collapse of the structure within the experimental time-window since σg is so small. However, as time proceeds, the system separates into colloid-poor and colloid-rich regions, as shown in the optical images of Figure 3 and in Supporting Information, Movie S3, where darker regions correspond to colloid-poor regions and brighter regions correspond to colloid-rich regions.

Surprisingly, however, the typical range of the attractive interaction in our experiments is which is much lower than those that are typically required to induce phase separation. However, this value is based on the average molecular weight of the polymer, Mw; because of the polydispersity of the polymer, there is a sizable fraction of chains which are several orders of magnitude larger than the mean, as shown in Figure 5.(25) Despite the relatively smaller concentration of these larger chains, we hypothesize that they nevertheless determine both the magnitude and width of the attraction, resulting in a weaker and wider attraction than would be expected from the peak of the Mw distribution, and causing the mixtures to exhibit a transient gel behavior.

Conclusion