Splitting of Surface-Immobilized Multicompartment Micelles into Clusters upon Charge Inversion

We investigate a morphological transition of surface-immobilized triblock terpolymer micelles: the splitting into well-defined clusters of satellite micelles upon pH changes. The multicompartment micelles are formed in aqueous solution of ABC triblock ter­polymers consisting of a hydrophobic polybutadiene block, a weak polyanionic poly­(methacrylic acid) block, and a weak polycationic poly­(2-(dimethylamino)­ethyl methacrylate) block. They are subsequently immobilized on silicon wafer surfaces by dip-coating. The splitting process is triggered by a pH change to strongly basic pH, which goes along with a charge reversal of the micelles. We find that the aggregation number of the submicelles is well-defined and that larger micelles have a tendency to split into a larger number of submicelles. Furthermore, there is a clear preference for clusters consisting of doublets and triplets of submicelles. The morphology of surface-immobilized clusters can be “quenched” by returning to the original pH. Thus, such well-defined micellar clusters can be stabilized and are available as colloidal building blocks for the formation of hierarchical surface structures. We discuss the underlying physicochemical principles of the splitting process considering changes in charge and total free energy of the micelles upon pH change.