Structure factor of blends of solvent-free nanoparticle–organic hybrid materials: density-functional theory and small angle X-ray scattering†
We investigate the static structure factor S(q) of solvent-free nanoparticle–organic hybrid materials consisting of silica nanocores and space-filling polyethylene glycol coronas using a density-functional theory and small angle X-ray scattering measurements. The theory considers a bidisperse suspension of hard spheres with different radii and tethered bead-spring oligomers with different grafting densities to approximate the polydispersity effects in experiments. The experimental systems studied include pure samples with different silica core volume fractions and the associated mean corona grafting densities, and blends with different mixing ratios of the pure samples, in order to introduce varying polydispersity of corona grafting density. Our scattering experiments and theory show that, compared to the hard-sphere suspension with the same core volume fraction, S(q) for pure samples exhibit both substantially smaller values at small q and stronger particle correlations corresponding to a larger effective hard core at large q, indicating that the tethered incompressible oligomers enforce a more uniform particle distribution, and the densely grafted brush gives rise to an additional exclusionary effect between the nanoparticles. According to the theory, polydispersity in the oligomer grafting density controls the deviation of S(q) from the monodisperse system at smaller q, and the interplay of the enhanced effective core size and the entropic attraction among the particles is responsible for complex variations in the particle correlations at larger q. The successful comparison between the predictions and the measurements for the blends further suggests that S(q) can be used to assess the uniformity of grafting density in polymer-grafted nanoparticle materials.