Switching the Interpenetration of Confined Asymmetric Polymer Brushes

The interpenetration of two polymer brushes on approaching flat surfaces has been investigated. When compacting polymer brushes with an asymmetric charge on each surface, one neutral and the other weakly charged, we find that the brush interpenetration becomes a parameter that can be controlled by the pH of the hydrating solution. The switching between high and low degrees of brush interpenetration was investigated with numerical self-consistent field theory (nSCF) and experimentally using a sample environment which combines neutron reflectometry with a surface force type apparatus. Initially, a pair of uncharged poly­(ethylene oxide), PEO, brushes are examined, where one of the brushes is deuterated to distinguish it from a hydrogenous counterpart. We find in both nSCF and these experiments that there is no significant overlap between the brushes as both compact into polymer blocks with little hydration. However, when a weak polyelectrolyte poly­(2-(dimethylamino)­ethyl methacrylate), PDMAEMA, brush is confined against a deuterated neutral PEO brush and the pH of the hydrating solution is below the polycation’s p<i>K</i><sub><i>a</i></sub> of 7.5, then the presence of charged groups on the PDMAEMA allows significant interpenetration to occur between the two polymer brushes on contact. This interpenetration remains once the polymer brushes dehydrate due to the confining pressure that is applied. Raising the pH to a value above the p<i>K</i><sub><i>a</i></sub>, removes the charges from the polyelectrolyte brush resulting in little to no interpenetration between the two brushes. Therefore, by simply adjusting the pH of the hydrating solution the interpenetration state between polymer brush pairs can be switched when one brush is a weak polyelectrolyte. Since polymer brushes are widely investigated and used to reduce friction between solid surfaces, this effect may have significant implications in the design and operation of polymer brushes with controllable friction properties.