From soft to hard sphere behavior: the role of single particle elasticity over the phase behavior of microgel suspensions
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The goal of this thesis is to study the role of single particle elasticity in the overall behavior of particulate systems. For this purpose, we use microgel particles, which are crosslinked polymer networks immersed in a solvent. In these systems, the amount of cross-linker determines their elasticity and ultimately the stiffness of the particle. For a system of hard spheres, the phase behavior is solely determined by the volume fraction occupied by the particles. Based on the volume fraction, liquid, crystal and glassy phases are observed. Interestingly, microgel particles display a richer and fascinating set of different behaviors depending on the particle stiffness. Previous results obtained in our group show that for highly cross-linked microgels, the glass phase disappears and there are only liquid and crystalline phases. By contrast, preliminary measurements indicate that for ultrasoft microgel particles the system does not show any signature of crystalline or glassy phases. The system seems to remain liquid irrespective of volume fractions. In this Thesis, we will address this striking result using light scattering as well as rheology, in order to access both static and dynamic properties in a wide range of length and time scales. In addition, we will also perform additional studies using very stiff microgels and use their swelling capabilities to change the volume fraction. We will use hydrostatic pressure to change the miscibility of the polymer network and thus change the microgel size; the use of this external variable allows fast equilibration times and homogeneous changes throughout the sample. By using neutron scattering techniques, we study the structural and dynamical properties of the system in its different phases involved.