Two-step deswelling in the Volume Phase Transition of thermoresponsive microgels

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2021 Sep 14;118(37):e2109560118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2109560118.

ABSTRACT

Thermoresponsive microgels are one of the most investigated types of soft colloids, thanks to their ability to undergo a Volume Phase Transition (VPT) close to ambient temperature. However, this fundamental phenomenon still lacks a detailed microscopic understanding, particularly regarding the presence and the role of charges in the deswelling process. This is particularly important for the widely used poly(N-isopropylacrylamide)-based microgels, where the constituent monomers are neutral but charged groups arise due to the initiator molecules used in the synthesis. Here, we address this point combining experiments with state-of-the-art simulations to show that the microgel collapse does not happen in a homogeneous fashion, but through a two-step mechanism, entirely attributable to electrostatic effects. The signature of this phenomenon is the emergence of a minimum in the ratio between gyration and hydrodynamic radii at the VPT. Thanks to simulations of microgels with different cross-linker concentrations, charge contents, and charge distributions, we provide evidence that peripheral charges arising from the synthesis are responsible for this behavior and we further build a universal master curve able to predict the two-step deswelling. Our results have direct relevance on fundamental soft condensed matter science and on applications where microgels are involved, ranging from materials to biomedical technologies.

PMID:34508008 | DOI:10.1073/pnas.2109560118

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