A weak polyelectrolyte brush is composed of a layer of polyacids or polybases grafted by one end of their chains to a substrate surface. For such brush layers immersed in an aqueous solution, the dissociation behavior of the acidic or basic groups and the structural and physical properties of the brush layer will thus be strongly dependent on the environmental conditions. For a polyacid brush layer consisting of, e.g., poly(acrylic acid), this means that the chains in the brush layer will be charged at high pH and uncharged at low pH. However, theoretical scaling laws not only foresee the structural changes occurring in response to the pH-induced dissociation behavior but also how the dissociation behavior of the brush layer depends on the ionic strength of the aqueous solution and the density of acidic groups within the brush layer. We have herein employed spectroscopic ellipsometry and a quartz crystal microbalance with dissipation monitoring (QCM-D) to experimentally evaluate the theoretically predicted dissociation and structural behavior of PAA brushes. Spectroscopic ellipsometry allows us to study the brush thickness as a function of pH and ionic strength, while QCM-D gives us an opportunity to investigate the swelling behavior of PAA brushes at various penetration depths of propagating acoustic waves. Our studies show that the dissociation degree of the carboxylic acid groups in a PAA brush increases with increasing distance from the substrate. Moreover, the ionic strength enhances carboxylic acid dissociation, such that a higher ionic strength leads to a narrower distribution and higher average dissociation degree. In conclusion, our results provide an experimental verification of the theoretically predicted gradient in the degree of dissociation of the acid groups in weak polyacid brush layers and shows that at a pH value equal to approximately the average pKa value of the brush, the state of the acid groups varies from being almost uncharged to almost fully dissociated depending on the ionic strength and vertical position in the brush.
- Ionic strength
- Layers polyelectrolytes