Non-equilibrium cluster states in colloids with competing interactions

T. Zhang, J. Klok, R.H. Tromp, J. Groenewold, W.K. Kegel

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Cluster formation and gelation are studied in a colloidal model system with competing short-range attractions and long-range repulsions. In contrast to predictions by equilibrium theory, the size of clusters spontaneously formed at low colloidal volume fractions decreases with increasing strength of the short-range attraction. Moreover, the microstructure and shape of the clusters sensitively depend on the strength of the short-range attraction: from compact and crystalline clusters at relatively weak attractions to disordered and quasi-linear clusters at strong attractions. By systematically varying attraction strength and colloidal volume fraction, we observe gelation at relatively high volume fraction. The structure of the gel depends on attraction strength: in systems with the lowest attraction strength, crowding of crystalline clusters leads to microcrystalline gels. In contrast, in systems with relatively strong attraction strength, percolation of quasi-linear clusters leads to low-density gels. In analyzing the results we show that nucleation and rearrangement processes play a key role in determining the properties of clusters and the mechanism of gelation. This study implies that by tuning the strength of short-range attractions, the growth mechanism as well as the structure of clusters can be controlled, and thereby the route to a gel state
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)667-672
Number of pages6
JournalSoft Matter
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2012


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