Critical Casimir interactions around the consolute point of a binary solvent
Spatial confinement of a near-critical medium changes its fluctuation spectrum and modifies the corresponding order parameter distribution, resulting in effective, so-called critical Casimir forces (CCFs) acting on the confining surfaces. These forces are attractive for like boundary conditions of the order parameter at the opposing surfaces of the confinement. For colloidal particles dissolved in a binary liquid mixture acting as a solvent close to its critical point of demixing, one thus expects the emergence of phase segregation into equilibrium colloidal liquid and gas phases. We analyze how such phenomena occur asymmetrically in the whole thermodynamic neighborhood of the consolute point of the binary solvent. By applying field-theoretical methods within mean-field approximation and the semi-empirical de Gennes–Fisher functional, we study the CCFs acting between planar parallel walls as well as between two spherical colloids and their dependence on temperature and on the composition of the near-critical binary mixture. We find that for compositions slightly poor in the molecules preferentially adsorbed at the surfaces, the CCFs are significantly stronger than at the critical composition, thus leading to pronounced colloidal segregation. The segregation phase diagram of the colloid solution following from the calculated effective pair potential between the colloids agrees surprisingly well with experiments and simulations.