Weak polyelectrolytes (WPEs) are responsive materials used as active charge regulators in a variety of applications, including controlled release and drug delivery in crowded bio-related and synthetic environments. In these environments, high concentrations of solvated molecules, nanostructures, and molecular assemblies are ubiquitous. Here, we investigated the effect of high concentrations of non-adsorbing, short chains of poly(vinyl alcohol), PVA, and colloids dispersed by the very same polymers on charge regulation (CR) of poly(acrylic acid), PAA. PVA does not interact with PAA (throughout the full pH range) and thus can be used to examine the role of non-specific (entropic) interactions in polymer-rich environments. Titration experiments of PAA (mainly 100 kDa in dilute solutions, no added salt) were carried out in high concentrations of PVA (13–23 kDa, 5–15 wt%) and dispersions of carbon black (CB) decorated by the same PVA (CB-PVA, 0.2–1 wt%). The calculated equilibrium constant (and (Formula presented.)) was up-shifted in PVA solutions by up to ~0.9 units and down-shifted in CB-PVA dispersions by ~0.4 units. Thus, while solvated PVA chains increase the charging of the PAA chains, as compared to PAA in water, CB-PVA particles reduce PAA charging. To investigate the origins of the effect, we analyzed the mixtures using small-angle X-ray scattering (SAXS) and cryo-TEM imaging. The scattering experiments revealed re-organization of the PAA chains in the presence of the solvated PVA but not in the CB-PVA dispersions. These observations clearly indicate that the acid–base equilibrium and the degree of ionization of PAA in crowded liquid environments is affected by the concentration, size, and geometry of seemingly non-interacting additives, probably due to depletion and excluded volume interactions. Thus, entropic effects that do not depend on specific interactions should be taken into consideration when designing functional materials in complex fluid environments.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
The support of the Israel Science Foundation (ISF grant 193-18) is acknowledged.
© 2023 by the authors.
- depletion interactions
- excluded volume
- poly(acrylic acid)
- steric effects
- weak polyelectrolytes (WPEs)