Interfacial Polyelectrolyte-Surfactant Complexes Regulate Escape of Microdroplets Elastically Trapped in Thermotropic Liquid Crystals

Michael Tsuei, Hao Sun, Young Ki Kim, Xin Wang, Nathan C. Gianneschi, Nicholas L. Abbott*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Polyelectrolytes adsorbed at soft interfaces are used in contexts such as materials synthesis, stabilization of emulsions, and control of rheology. Here, we explore how polyelectrolyte adsorption to aqueous interfaces of thermotropic liquid crystals (LCs) influences surfactant-stabilized aqueous microdroplets that are elastically trapped within the LCs. We find that adsorption of poly(diallyldimethylammonium chloride) (PDDA) to the interface of a nematic phase of 4-cyano-4′-pentylbiphenyl (5CB) triggers the ejection of microdroplets decorated with sodium dodecylsulfate (SDS), consistent with an attractive electrical double layer interaction between the microdroplets and LC interface. The concentration of PDDA that triggers release of the microdroplets (millimolar), however, is three orders of magnitude higher than that which saturates the LC interfacial charge (micromolar). Observation of a transient reorientation of the LC during escape of microdroplets leads us to conclude that complexes of PDDA and SDS form at the LC interface and thereby regulate interfacial charge and microdroplet escape. Poly(sodium 4-styrenesulfonate) (PSS) also triggers escape of dodecyltrimethylammonium bromide (DTAB)-decorated aqueous microdroplets from 5CB with dynamics consistent with the formation of interfacial polyelectrolyte-surfactant complexes. In contrast to PDDA-SDS, however, we do not observe a transient reorientation of the LC when using PSS-DTAB, reflecting weak association of DTAB and PSS and slow kinetics of formation of PSS-DTAB complexes. Our results reveal the central role of polyelectrolyte-surfactant dynamics in regulating the escape of the microdroplets and, more broadly, that LCs offer the basis of a novel probe of the structure and properties of polyelectrolyte-surfactant complexes at interfaces. We demonstrate the utility of these new insights by triggering the ejection of microdroplets from LCs using peptide-polymer amphiphiles that switch their net charge upon being processed by enzymes. Overall, our results provide fresh insight into the formation of polyelectrolyte-surfactant complexes at aqueous-LC interfaces and new principles for the design of responsive soft matter.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)332-342
Number of pages11
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 11 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Materials Science
  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Surfaces and Interfaces
  • Spectroscopy
  • Electrochemistry


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