Orientational phase behavior of polymer-grafted nanocubes†
Surface functionalization of nanoparticles with polymer grafts was recently shown to be a viable strategy for controlling the relative orientation of shaped nanoparticles in their higher-order assemblies. In this study, we investigated in silico the orientational phase behavior of coplanar polymer-grafted nanocubes confined in a thin film. We first used Monte Carlo simulations to compute the two-particle interaction free-energy landscape of the nanocubes and identify their globally stable configurations. The nanocubes were found to exhibit four stable phases: those with edge–edge and face–face orientations, and those exhibiting partially overlapped slanted and parallel faces previously assumed to be metastable. Moreover, the edge–edge configuration originally thought to involve kissing edges instead displayed partly overlapping edges, where the extent of the overlap depends on the attachment positions of the grafts. We next formulated analytical scaling expressions for the free energies of the identified configurations, which were used for constructing a comprehensive phase diagram of nanocube orientation in a multidimensional parameter space comprising of the size and interaction strength of the nanocubes and the Kuhn length and surface density of the grafts. The morphology of the phase diagram was shown to arise from an interplay between polymer- and surface-mediated interactions, especially differences in their scalings with respect to nanocube size and grafting density across the four phases. The phase diagram provided insights into tuning these interactions through the various parameters of the system for achieving target configurations. Overall, this work provides a framework for predicting and engineering interparticle configurations, with possible applications in plasmonic nanocomposites where control over particle orientation is critical.