Conformation transitions of a single polyelectrolyte chain in a poor solvent: a replica-exchange lattice Monte-Carlo study†
The thermodynamic behaviors of a strongly charged polyelectrolyte chain in a poor solvent are studied using replica-exchange Monte-Carlo simulations on a lattice model, focusing on the effects of finite chain length and the solvent quality on the chain conformation and conformation transitions. The neutralizing counterions and solvent molecules are considered explicitly. The thermodynamic quantities that vary continuously with temperature over a wide range are computed using the multiple histogram reweighting method. Our results suggest that the strength of the short-range hydrophobic interaction, the chain length, and the temperature of the system, characterized by ε, N, and T, respectively, are important parameters that control the conformations of a charged chain. When ε is moderate, the competition between the electrostatic energy and the short-range hydrophobic interaction leads to rich conformations and conformation transitions for a longer chain with a fixed length. Our results have unambiguously demonstrated the stability of the n-pearl-necklace structures, where n has a maximum value and decreases with decreasing temperature. The maximum n value increases with increasing chain length. Our results have also demonstrated the first-order nature of the conformation transitions between the m-pearl and the (m-1)-pearl necklaces. With the increase of ε, the transition temperature increases and the first-order feature becomes more pronounced. It is deduced that at the thermodynamic limit of infinitely long chain length, the conformational transitions between the m-pearl and the (m-1)-pearl necklaces may remain first order when ε > 0 and m = 2 or 3. Pearl-necklace conformations cannot be observed when either ε is too large or N is too small. To observe a pearl-necklace conformation, the T value needs to be carefully chosen for simulations performed at only a single temperature.