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Fatty Acid Self-Assembly at the Air–Water Interface

Curvature, Patterning, and Biomimetics: A Study by Neutron Reflectometry and Atomic Force Microscopy

Time: Fri 2020-06-12 10.00

Location:, Stockholm (English)

Subject area: Chemistry

Doctoral student: Erik Bergendal , Yt- och korrosionsvetenskap

Supervisor: Professor Mark W. Rutland, Yt- och korrosionsvetenskap

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For more than a hundred years of interfacial science, long chain fatty acids have been the primary system for the study of floating monolayers at the air–water interface due to their amphiphilic nature and system simplicity: an insoluble hydrocarbon chain and a soluble carboxyl group at a flat air–water interface. Despite―or perhaps rather due to―the assumed simplicity of such systems and the maturity of the research field, the seemingly fundamentally rooted notion of a two-dimensional water surface has yet to be challenged.

The naturally occurring methyl-branched long chain fatty acid 18-methyleicosanoic acid and one of its isomers form monolayers consisting of monodisperse domains of tens of nanometres, varying in size with the placement of the methyl branch. The ability of domain-forming monolayers to three-dimensionally texture the air–water interface is investigated as a result of hydrocarbon packing constraints owing to the methyl branch.

In this work, neutron reflectometry has been used to study monolayers of branched long chain fatty acids directly at the air–water interface, which allowed precise probing of how a deformable water surface is affected by monolayer structure. Such films were also transferred by Langmuir–Blodgett deposition to the air–solid interface, and subsequently imaged by atomic force microscopy. Combined, the results unanimously―and all but unambiguously―show that the self-assembly of branched long chain fatty acids texture the air–water interface, inducing domain formation by a local curvature of the water surface, and thus controverting the preconceived notion of a planar air–water interface. The size and shape of the observed domains are shown to be tuneable using three different parameters: in mixed systems of branched and unbranched fatty acids, with varying hydrocarbon length of the straight chain, and altering subphase electrolyte properties. Each of these factors effectively allows changing the local curvature of the monolayer, much like analogous three-dimensional systems in bulk lyotropic crystals. This precise tuneability opens up for sustainable nanopatterning. Finally, the results lead to a plausible hypothesis of self-healing properties as to why the surface of hair and wool have a significant proportion of branched fatty acid.