Competition between phase transition and thermophoretic expansion of a transient poly(N-isopropylacrylamide) network
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Aqueous solutions of highly entangled ultra-high molar mass ( 2.4×106 g/mol) poly(N-isopropylacrylamide) (PNIPAM) have been subjected to an inhomogeneous temperature field by selective heating of a single embedded gold nanoparticle (GNP) by means of a focused laser beam. Randomly distributed tracer GNPs are trapped in the meshes of the transient entanglement network and serve as tracers for the monitoring of the network deformation field. Because of the positive Soret coefficient of PNIPAM in water, the viscoelastic polymer network is expanded by thermophoretic forces pointing away from the hot center. Close to the heated GNP the thermoresponsive polymer solution crosses the binodal and the network contracts, which is made visible by an inward motion of tracer GNPs, which are randomly embedded in the polymer network and not illuminated by the laser beam. Within a thin transition zone the network contraction and the competing thermophoretic network expansion cancel out in the steady state. There is, however, no cancellation during the transients due to the different time scales of both mechanisms. The network within the crossover region first undergoes an expansion that is followed by a slower contraction. From the global expansion and contraction, the local strain (stretching and compression) of the transient network can be calculated. Due to the long disentanglement times, corresponding to long lifetimes of the meshes of the network, the whole process is fully reversible.