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Assembly of polyelectrolyte star block copolymers at the oil–water interface

by Jan Michael Y Carrillo, Uvinduni I Premadasa, Benjamin L Doughty, Bobby G Sumpter
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To understand and resolve adsorption, reconfiguration, and equilibrium conformations of charged star copolymers, we carried out an integrated experimental and coarse-grained molecular dynamics simulation study of the assembly process at the oil–water interface. This is important to guide development of novel surfactants or amphiphiles for chemical transformations and separations. The star block copolymer consisted of arms that are comprised of hydrophilic–hydrophobic block copolymers that are covalently tethered via the hydrophobic blocks to one point. The hydrophobic core represents polystyrene (PS) chains, while the hydrophilic corona represents quaternized poly(2-vinylpyridine) (P2VP) chains. The P2VP is modeled to become protonated when in contact with an acidic aqueous phase, thereby massively increasing the hydrophilicity of this block, and changing the nature of the star at the oil–water interface. This results in a configurational change whereby the chains comprising the hydrophilic corona are significantly stretched into the aqueous phase, while the hydrophobic core remains solubilized in the oil phase. In the simulations, we followed the kinetics of the anchoring and assembly of the star block copolymer at the interface, monitoring the lateral assembly, and the subsequent reconfiguration of the star via changes in the interfacial tension that varies as the degree-of-protonation increases. At low fractions of protonation, the arm cannot fully partition into the aqueous side of the interface and instead interacts with other arms in the oil phase forming a network near the interface. These insights were used to interpret the non-monotonic dependence of pH with the asymptotic interfacial tension from pendant drop tensiometry experiments and spectral signatures of aromatic stretches seen in vibrational sum frequency generation (SFG) spectroscopy. We describe the relationship of interfacial tension to the star assembly via the Frumkin isotherm, which phenomenologically describes anti-cooperativity in adsorbing stars to the interface due to crowding. Although our model explicitly considers long-range electrostatics, the contribution of electrostatics to interfacial tension is small and brought about by strong counterion condensation at the interface. These results provide key insights into resolving the adsorption, reconfiguration, and equilibrium conformations of charged star block copolymers as surfactants.