Multivalent ions induce lateral structural inhomogeneities in polyelectrolyte brushes

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Science Advances  08 Dec 2017:
Vol. 3, no. 12, eaao1497
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aao1497

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Subtle details about a polyelectrolyte’s surrounding environment can dictate its structural features and potential applications. Atomic force microscopy (AFM), surface forces apparatus (SFA) measurements, and coarse-grained molecular dynamics simulations are combined to study the structure of planar polyelectrolyte brushes [poly(styrenesulfonate), PSS] in a variety of solvent conditions. More specifically, AFM images provide a first direct visualization of lateral inhomogeneities on the surface of polyelectrolyte brushes collapsed in solutions containing trivalent counterions. These images are interpreted in the context of a coarse-grained molecular model and are corroborated by accompanying interaction force measurements with the SFA. Our findings indicate that lateral inhomogeneities are absent from PSS brush layers collapsed in a poor solvent without multivalent ions. Together, AFM, SFA, and our molecular model present a detailed picture in which solvophobic and multivalent ion–induced effects work in concert to drive strong phase separation, with electrostatic bridging of polyelectrolyte chains playing an essential role in the collapsed structure formation.

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