Chain conformations and phase separation in polymer solutions with varying solvent quality

YS Huang and SF Cheng, JOURNAL OF POLYMER SCIENCE, 59, 2819-2831 (2021).

DOI: 10.1002/pol.20210526

Molecular dynamics simulations are used to investigate the conformations of a single polymer chain, represented by the Kremer-Grest bead-spring model, in a solution with a Lennard-Jones liquid as the solvent when the interaction strength between the polymer and solvent is varied. Results show that when the polymer-solvent interaction is unfavorable, the chain collapses as one would expect in a poor solvent. For more attractive polymer-solvent interactions, the solvent quality improves and the chain is increasingly solvated and exhibits ideal and then swollen conformations. However, as the polymer-solvent interaction strength is increased further to be more than about twice the strength of the polymer-polymer and solvent-solvent interactions, the chain exhibits an unexpected collapsing behavior. Correspondingly, for strong polymer- solvent attractions, phase separation is observed in the solutions of multiple chains. These results indicate that the solvent becomes effectively poor again at very attractive polymer-solvent interactions. Nonetheless, the mechanism of chain collapsing and phase separation in this limit differs from the case with a poor solvent rendered by unfavorable polymer-solvent interactions. In the latter, the solvent is excluded from the domain of the collapsed chains while in the former, the solvent is still present in the pervaded volume of a collapsed chain or in the polymer-rich domain that phase separates from the pure solvent. In the limit of strong polymer-solvent attractions, the solvent behaves as a glue to stick monomers together, causing a single chain to collapse and multiple chains to aggregate and phase separate.

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