Toward a Unified Description of the Electrostatic Assembly of Microgels and Nanoparticles

F Brasili and G Del Monte and A Capocefalo and E Chauveau and E Buratti and S Casciardi and D Truzzolillo and S Sennato and E Zaccarelli, ACS APPLIED MATERIALS & INTERFACES, 15, 58770-58783 (2023).

DOI: 10.1021/acsami.3c14608

The interplay of soft responsive particles, such as microgels, with nanoparticles (NPs) yields highly versatile complexes that show great potential for applications, ranging from plasmonic sensing to catalysis and drug delivery. However, the microgel-NP assembly process has not been investigated so far at the microscopic level, thus hindering the possibility of designing such hybrid systems a priori. In this work, we combine state-of-the-art numerical simulations with experiments to elucidate the fundamental mechanisms taking place when microgel-NP assembly is controlled by electrostatic interactions and the associated effects on the structure of the resulting complexes. We find a general behavior where, by increasing the number of interacting NPs, the microgel deswells up to a minimum size after which a plateau behavior occurs. This occurs either when NPs are mainly adsorbed to the microgel corona via the folding of the more external chains or when NPs penetrate inside the microgel, thereby inducing a collective reorganization of the polymer network. By varying microgel properties, such as fraction of cross-linkers or charge, as well as NP size and charge, we further show that the microgel deswelling curves can be rescaled onto a single master curve, for both experiments and simulations, demonstrating that the process is entirely controlled by the charge of the whole microgel-NP complex. Our results thus have a direct relevance in fundamental materials science and offer novel tools to tailor the nanofabrication of hybrid devices of technological interest.

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