Gel phase formation in dilute triblock copolyelectrolyte complexes
Published Web Locationhttps://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms14131
Assembly of oppositely charged triblock copolyelectrolytes into phase-separated gels at low polymer concentrations (<1% by mass) has been observed in scattering experiments and molecular dynamics simulations. Here we show that in contrast to uncharged, amphiphilic block copolymers that form discrete micelles at low concentrations and enter a phase of strongly interacting micelles in a gradual manner with increasing concentration, the formation of a dilute phase of individual micelles is prevented in polyelectrolyte complexation-driven assembly of triblock copolyelectrolytes. Gel phases form and phase separate almost instantaneously on solvation of the copolymers. Furthermore, molecular models of self-assembly demonstrate the presence of oligo-chain aggregates in early stages of copolyelectrolyte assembly, at experimentally unobservable polymer concentrations. Our discoveries contribute to the fundamental understanding of the structure and pathways of complexation-driven assemblies, and raise intriguing prospects for gel formation at extraordinarily low concentrations, with applications in tissue engineering, agriculture, water purification and theranostics.