Nature of dynamic gradients, glass formation, and collective effects in ultrathin freestanding films

A Ghanekarade and AD Phan and KS Schweizer and DS Simmons, PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, 118, e2104398118 (2021).

DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2104398118

Molecular, polymeric, colloidal, and other classes of liquids can exhibit very large, spatially heterogeneous alterations of their dynamics and glass transition temperature when confined to nanoscale domains. Considerable progress has been made in understanding the related problem of near-interface relaxation and diffusion in thick films. However, the origin of "nanoconfinement effects" on the glassy dynamics of thin films, where gradients from different interfaces interact and genuine collective finite size effects may emerge, remains a longstanding open question. Here, we combine molecular dynamics simulations, probing 5 decades of relaxation, and the Elastically Cooperative Nonlinear Langevin Equation (ECNLE) theory, addressing 14 decades in timescale, to establish a microscopic and mechanistic understanding of the key features of altered dynamics in freestanding films spanning the full range from ultrathin to thick films. Simulations and theory are in qualitative and near-quantitative agreement without use of any adjustable parameters. For films of intermediate thickness, the dynamical behavior is well predicted to leading order using a simple linear superposition of thick-film exponential barrier gradients, including a remarkable suppression and flattening of various dynamical gradients in thin films. However, in sufficiently thin films the superposition approximation breaks down due to the emergence of genuine finite size confinement effects. ECNLE theory extended to treat thin films captures the phenomenology found in simulation, without invocation of any critical-like phenomena, on the basis of interface-nucleated gradients of local caging constraints, combined with interfacial and finite size-induced alterations of the collective elastic component of the structural relaxation process.

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