Mechanical Slowing Down of Network-Forming Phase Separation of Polymer Solutions

JX Yuan and M Tateno and H Tanaka, ACS NANO, 17, 18025-18036 (2023).

DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.3c04657

Phase separation is a fundamental phenomenon leading to spatially heterogeneous material distribution, which is critical in nature, biology, material science, and industry. In ordinary phase separation, the minority phase always forms droplets. Contrary to this common belief, even the minority phase can form a network structure in viscoelastic phase separation (VPS). VPS can occur in any mixture with significant mobility differences between their components and is highly relevant to soft matter and biomatter. In contrast to classical phase separation, experiments have shown that VPS in polymer solutions lacks self-similar coarsening, resulting in the absence of a domain-coarsening scaling law. However, the underlying microscopic mechanism of this behavior remains unknown. To this end, we perform fluid particle dynamics simulations of bead-spring polymers, incorporating many-body hydrodynamic interactions between polymers through a solvent. We discover that polymers in the dense-network-forming phase are stretched and store elastic energy when the deformation speed exceeds the polymer dynamics. This self-generated viscoelastic stress mechanically interferes with phase separation and slows its dynamics, disrupting self-similar growth. We also highlight the essential role of many-body hydrodynamic interactions in VPS. The implications of our findings may hold importance in areas such as biological phase separation, porous material formation, and other fields where network structures play a pivotal role.

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