Tuning the bridging attraction between large hard particles by the softness of small microgels†
In this study, the attraction between large hard polystyrene (PS) spheres is studied by using three types of small microgels as bridging agents. One is a purely soft poly(N-isopropylacrylamide) (PNIPAM) microgel, the other two have a non-deformable PS hard core surrounded by a soft PNIPAM shell but are different in the core–shell ratio. The affinity for bridging the large PS spheres is provided and thus affected by the PNIPAM constituent in the microgels. The bridging effects caused by the microgels can be indirectly incorporated into their influence on the effective attraction interaction between the large hard spheres, since the size of the microgels is very small in comparison to the size of the PS hard spheres. At a given volume fraction of large PS spheres, they behave essentially as hard spheres in the absence of small microgels. By gradually adding the microgels, the large spheres are connected to each other through the bridging of small particles until the attraction strength reaches a maximum value, after which adding more small particles slowly decreases the effective attraction strength and eventually the large particles disperse individually when saturated adsorption is achieved. The aggregation and gelation behaviors triggered by these three types of small microgels are compared and discussed. A way to tune the strength and range of the short-range attractive potential via changing the softness of bridging microgels (which can be achieved either by using core–shell microgels or by changing the temperature) is proposed.