Structure formation in soft nanocolloids: liquid-drop model†
Using a model where soft nanocolloids such as spherical polymer brushes and star polymers are viewed as compressible liquid drops, we theoretically explore contact interactions between such particles. By numerically minimizing the phenomenological free energy consisting of bulk and surface terms, we find that at small deformations the drop–drop interaction is pairwise additive and described by a power law. We also propose a theory to describe the small-deformation regime, and the agreement is very good at all drop compressibilities. The large-deformation regime, which is dominated by many-body interactions, is marked by a rich phase diagram which includes the face- and body-centered-cubic, σ, A15, and simple hexagonal lattice as well as isostructural and re-entrant transitions. Most of these features are directly related to the non-convex deformation free energy emerging from many-body effects in the partial-faceting regime. The phase diagram, which depends on just two model parameters, contains many of the condensed phases observed in experiments. We also provide statistical-mechanical arguments that relate the two model parameters to the molecular architecture of the polymeric nanocolloids, chain rigidity, and solvent quality. The model represents a generic framework for the overarching features of the phase behavior of polymeric nanocolloids at high compressions.