Ionic colloidal crystals of oppositely charged particles

Nature. 2005 Sep 8;437(7056):235-40. doi: 10.1038/nature03946.


Colloidal suspensions are widely used to study processes such as melting, freezing and glass transitions. This is because they display the same phase behaviour as atoms or molecules, with the nano- to micrometre size of the colloidal particles making it possible to observe them directly in real space. Another attractive feature is that different types of colloidal interactions, such as long-range repulsive, short-range attractive, hard-sphere-like and dipolar, can be realized and give rise to equilibrium phases. However, spherically symmetric, long-range attractions (that is, ionic interactions) have so far always resulted in irreversible colloidal aggregation. Here we show that the electrostatic interaction between oppositely charged particles can be tuned such that large ionic colloidal crystals form readily, with our theory and simulations confirming the stability of these structures. We find that in contrast to atomic systems, the stoichiometry of our colloidal crystals is not dictated by charge neutrality; this allows us to obtain a remarkable diversity of new binary structures. An external electric field melts the crystals, confirming that the constituent particles are indeed oppositely charged. Colloidal model systems can thus be used to study the phase behaviour of ionic species. We also expect that our approach to controlling opposite-charge interactions will facilitate the production of binary crystals of micrometre-sized particles, which could find use as advanced materials for photonic applications.