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The Unexpected Role of Cations in the Self-Assembly of Positively Charged Amphiphiles at Liquid/Liquid Interfaces

Publication Type
Journal Name
The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters
Publication Date
Page Numbers
10889 to 10896

Conventional wisdom suggests that cations play a minimal role in the assembly of cationic amphiphiles. Here, we show that at liquid/liquid (L/L) interfaces, specific cation effects can modulate the assemblies of hydrophobic tails in an oil phase despite being attached to cationic headgroups in the aqueous phase. We used oligo-dimethylsiloxane (ODMS) methyl imidazolium amphiphiles to identify these specific interactions at hexadecane/aqueous interfaces. Small cations, such as Li+, bind to the O atoms in the ODMS tail and pin it to the interface, thereby imposing a kinked conformation─as evidenced by vibrational sum frequency generation spectroscopy and molecular dynamics simulations. While larger Cs+ ions more readily partition to the interface, they do not form analogous complexes. Our data not only point to ways for controlling amphiphile structure at L/L interfaces but also suggest a means for the separation of Li+, or related applications, in soft-matter electronics.