Machine learning enabled quantification of the hydrogen bonds inside the polyelectrolyte brush layer probed using all-atom molecular dynamics simulations

TH Pial and S Das, SOFT MATTER, 18, 8945-8951 (2022).

DOI: 10.1039/d2sm00997h

The configuration of densely grafted charged polyelectrolyte (PE) brushes is strongly dictated by the properties and behavior of the counterions that screen the PE brush charges and the solvent molecules (typically water) that solvate the brush molecules and these screening counterions. Only recently, efforts have been made to study the PE brushes atomistically, thereby shedding light on the properties of brush-supported ions and water molecules. However, even for such efforts, there are limitations associated with using a generic definition to estimate certain properties of water and ions inside the brush layer. For example, water-water hydrogen bonds (HBs) will behave differently for locations outside and inside the brush layer, given the fact that the densely closely grafted PE brush molecules create a soft nanoconfinement where the water connectivity becomes highly disrupted: therefore, using the same definition to quantify the HBs inside and outside the brush layer will be unwise. In this paper, we address this limitation by employing an unsupervised machine learning (ML) approach to predict the water-water hydrogen bonding inside a cationic PE brush layer modeled using all-atom molecular dynamics (MD) simulations. The ML method, which relies on a clustering approach and uses the equilibrium coordinates of the water molecules (obtained from the all-atom MD simulations) as the input, is capable of identifying the structural modification of water-water HBs (revealed through appropriate clustering of the data) inside the PE brush layer induced soft nanoconfinement. Such capabilities would not have been possible by using a generic definition of the HBs. Our calculations lead to four key findings: (1) the clusters formed inside and outside the brush layer are structurally similar; (2) the margin of the cluster is shorter inside the PE brush layer confirming the possible disruption of the HBs inside the PE brush layer; (3) the average "hydrogen-acceptor-oxygen-donor-oxygen" angle that defines the HB is reduced for the HBs formed inside the brush layer; (4) the use of the generic definition (definition usable for characterizing the HBs in brush-free bulk) leads to an overprediction of the number of HBs formed inside the PE brush layer.

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