We use 3D confocal microscopy combined with image analysis and particle tracking techniques to study the structure and dynamics of aqueous suspensions of fluorescently labelled p(NIPAm-co-AAc) microgel particles. By adjusting the pH we can tune the interactions between the microgel particles from purely repulsive near neutral pH, to weakly attractive at low pH. This change in the interaction potential has a pronounced effect on the manner in which the suspensions solidify. We directly follow the evolution of the system after a quench from the liquid state to obtain detailed information on the route to kinetic arrest. At low pH and low concentration, dynamic arrest results mainly from crystallization driven by the attraction between particles; crystal nucleation occurs homogeneously throughout the sample and does not appear to be localized to geometric boundaries. Moreover, the growth of crystals is characterized by nucleation-limited kinetics where a rapid growth of crystal domains takes place after a long concentration-dependent lag time. At low pH and high concentration, relaxation of the suspension is constrained and it evolves only slightly, resulting in a disordered solid. At neutral pH, the dynamics are a function of the particle number concentration only; a high concentration leads to the formation of a disordered soft glassy solid.
- colloidal crystals
- crystallization kinetics