Scattering evidence of positional charge correlations in polyelectrolyte complexes

YN Fang and AM Rumyantsev and AE Neitzel and HY Liang and WT Heller and PF Nealey and MV Tirrell and JJ de Pablo, PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, 120, e2302151120 (2023).

DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2302151120

Polyelectrolyte complexation plays an important role in materials science and biology. The internal structure of the resultant polyelectrolyte complex (PEC) phase dictates properties such as physical state, response to external stimuli, and dynamics. Small -angle scattering experiments with X-rays and neutrons have revealed structural similarities between PECs and semidilute solutions of neutral polymers, where the total scattering function exhibits an Ornstein-Zernike form. In spite of consensus among different theoretical predictions, the existence of positional correlations between polyanion and polycation charges has not been confirmed experimentally. Here, we present small- angle neutron scattering profiles where the polycation scattering length density is matched to that of the solvent to extract positional correlations among anionic monomers. The polyanion scattering functions exhibit a peak at the inverse polymer screening radius of Coulomb interactions, q* approximate to 0.2 angstrom-1. This peak, attributed to Coulomb repulsions between the fragments of polyanions and their attractions to polycations, is even more pronounced in the calculated charge scattering function that quantifies positional correlations of all polymer charges within the PEC. Screening of electrostatic interactions by adding salt leads to the gradual disappearance of this correlation peak, and the scattering functions regain an Ornstein- Zernike form. Experimental scattering results are consistent with those calculated from the random phase approximation, a scaling analysis, and molecular simulations.

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