Polymer-mediated interaction between nanoparticles during hydration and dehydration: a small-angle X-ray scattering study†
Polymer-mediated interactions such as DNA–protein binding, protein aggregation, and filler reinforcement in polymers play crucial roles in many important biological and industrial processes. In this work, we report a detailed investigation of interactions between nanoparticles in the presence of high volume fractions of an adsorbing polymer. Small-angle X-ray scattering (SAXS) revealed the existence of a stable gel-like structure in the polymer-nanoparticle dispersion, whereby anchored polymer molecules on nanoparticles acted as bridging centres, while basic interactions between nanoparticles remained repulsive. Time-resolved SAXS measurements showed that the local volume fraction of nanoparticles increased during the drying of the dispersion owing to the shrinkage of the gel-like structure. Further, nanoparticle clusters in the dehydrated composite films showed percolated networks of nanoparticles, except for 5% loading that showed a phase-separated morphology as the volume fraction of nanoparticles remained lower than the percolation threshold. A significant restructuring of nanoparticle clusters occurred upon the hydration of nanocomposite films caused by the expansion of polymer networks induced by hydration forces. Temporal evolution of the volume fraction of nanoparticles during dehydration unveiled three distinct stages similar to the logistic growth function and this was attributed to the evaporation of free, intermediate, and bound water in the different stages. A plausible mechanism was elucidated based on the spring action analogy between anchored polymer chains and nanoparticles during hydration and dehydration processes.