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Poly-N-isopropylacrylamide Nanogels and Microgels at Fluid Interfaces
Marcel Rey, Miguel Angel Fernandez-Rodriguez, Matthias Karg, Lucio Isa, Nicolas Vogel:
Acc. Chem. Res., 53, 414-424 (2020)
doi: 10.1021/acs.accounts.9b00528

The confinement of colloidal particles at liquid interfaces offers many opportunities for materials design. Adsorption is driven by a reduction of the total free energy as the contact area between the two liquids is partially replaced by the particle. From an application point of view, particle-stabilized interfaces form emulsions and foams with superior stability. Liquid interfaces also effectively confine colloidal particles in two dimensions and therefore provide ideal model systems to fundamentally study particle interactions, dynamics, and self-assembly. With progress in the synthesis of nanomaterials, more and more complex and functional particles are available for such studies.

In this Account, we focus on poly(N-isopropylacrylamide) nanogels and microgels. These are cross-linked polymeric particles that swell and soften by uptaking large amounts of water. The incorporated water can be partially expelled, causing a volume phase transition into a collapsed state when the temperature is increased above approximately 32°C.

Soft microgels adsorbed to liquid interfaces significantly deform under the influence of interfacial tension and assume cross sections exceeding their bulk dimensions. In particular, a pronounced corona forms around the microgel core, consisting of dangling chains at the microgel periphery. These polymer chains expand at the interface and strongly affect the interparticle interactions. The particle deformability therefore leads to a significantly more complex interfacial phase behavior that provides a rich playground to explore structure formation processes.

We first discuss the characteristic “fried-egg” or core–corona morphology of individual microgels adsorbed to a liquid interface and comment on the dependence of this interfacial morphology on their physicochemical properties. We introduce different theoretical models to describe their interfacial morphology. In a second part, we introduce how ensembles of microgels interact and self-assemble at liquid interfaces. The core–corona morphology and the possibility to force these elements into overlap upon compression results in a complex phase behavior with a phase transition between microgels with extended and collapsed coronae. We discuss the influence of the internal particle architecture, also including core–shell microgels with rigid cores, on the phase behavior. Finally, we present new routes for the realization of more complex structures, resulting from multiple deposition protocols and from engineering the interaction potential of the individual particles.

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