Time-evolution scenarios for short-range depletion gels subjected to the gravitational stress
By exploiting photon correlation imaging and ghost particle velocimetry, two novel optical correlation techniques particularly suited to the investigation of the microscopic dynamics of spatially heterogeneous samples, we investigate the settling and restructuring dynamics of colloidal gels generated by short-ranged depletion interactions. Three distinct regions can be clearly set apart within the liquid–liquid coexistence region of the phase diagram where gel formation is observed. When depletion forces are barely sufficient to drive the system within the metastable region, an initial disordered gel hosts the rapid nucleation of crystallites, which stress the gel structure until it fully collapses, leading to the formation of a macroscopic colloidal crystal. For stronger attractive forces, two distinct scenarios are observed, depending on the particle volume fraction ϕ0 of the original suspension. At low ϕ0, the gel breaks after a short delay time into separate clusters, which rapidly settle until they compact in a denser disordered phase. The latter eventually undergoes a slow compression, which is accounted for by a poroelastic model where the microscopic gel dynamics is fully ruled by its macroscopic deformation. Yet, it is the intermediate stage between cluster settling and final compaction which displays very peculiar features, evidenced by anomalous settling profiles which are not shared, to our knowledge, by any other sedimentation processes investigated so far. For larger values of ϕ0, gel breaking is conversely suppressed, the structure undergoes a continuous compression that cannot be explained by a poroelastic model, and the microscopic dynamics is characterized by logarithmic correlation functions resembling those found for attractive glasses.