Associative phase separation (complex coacervation) in a mixture of oppositely charged polyelectrolytes can lead to different types of (inter-)polyelectrolyte complexes (soluble micelles, macroscopic precipitation). In a previous report [Langmuir 2004, 20, 2785-2791], we presented a model for the electrostatic free energy change when (weakly charged) polyelectrolyte forms a homogeneous complex phase. The influence of ionization of the polymer on the electrostatic free energy of the complex was incorporated but the influence of complex density neglected. In the present effort, cylindrical cells are assumed around each polyelectrolyte chain in the complex, and on the basis of the Poisson-Boltzmann equation, the electrostatic free energy is calculated as a function of the complex density. After combination with Flory-Huggins mixing free energy terms and minimization of the total free energy, the equilibrium complex density is obtained, for a given ratio of polycations to polyanions in the complex. The analysis is used in an example calculation of polyelectrolyte film formation by alternatingly applying a polycation and a polyanion solution. The calculation suggests that the often observed exponential growth of a polyelectrolyte film when the polymer is weakly charged has a thermodynamic origin: the polyelectrolyte complex shifts repeatedly between two equilibrium states of different densities and compositions. However, when the polyelectrolytes are strongly charged the difference in the compositions between the two equilibrium states is very small, and exponential growth by an absorption mechanism is no longer possible.
- electrical double-layer