On tuning microgel character and softness of cross-linked polystyrene particles†
Polystyrene (PS) microgel colloids have often been used successfully to model hard sphere behaviour even though the term “gel” invokes inevitably the notion of a more or less soft, deformable object. Here we systematically study the effect of reducing the cross-link density from 1 : 10 (1 cross-link per 10 monomers) to 1 : 100 on particle interactions and “softness”. We report on the synthesis and purification of 1 : 10, 1 : 25, 1 : 50, 1 : 75 and 1 : 100 cross-linked PS particles and their characterization in terms of single particle properties, as well as the behaviour of concentrated dispersions. We are able to tune particle softness in the range between soft PNiPAM-microgels and hard PMMA particles while still allowing the mapping of the microgels onto hard sphere behavior with respect to phase diagram and static structure factors. This is mainly due to a rather homogeneous radial distribution of cross-links in contrast to PNiPAM microgels where the cross-link density decreases radially. We find that up to a cross-link density of 1 : 50 particle form factors are perfectly described by a homogeneous sphere model whereas 1 : 75 and 1 : 100 cross-linked spheres are slightly better described as fuzzy spheres. However the fuzziness is rather small compared to typical PNiPAM microgels so that a hard sphere mapping still holds even for these low cross-link densities. Finally, by varying the reaction conditions – changing from batch to semibatch emulsion polymerization and varying the feed rate or by adjusting the monomer to initiator ratio we can tune the fuzziness or significantly alter the inner structure to a more open, star-like architecture.