Gels are amorphous solids whose macroscopic viscoelastic response derives from constraints in the material that serve to localize the constituent molecules or particles about their average positions in space. These constraints may either be local in nature, as in chemical cross-linking and direct
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Gels are amorphous solids whose macroscopic viscoelastic response derives from constraints in the material that serve to localize the constituent molecules or particles about their average positions in space. These constraints may either be local in nature, as in chemical cross-linking and direct physical associations, or non-local, as in case of topological “entanglement” interactions between highly extended fiber or sheet structures in the fluid. Either of these interactions, or both combined, can lead to “gelation” or “amorphous solidification”. While gels are often considered to be inherently non-equilibrium materials, and correspondingly termed “soft glassy matter”, this is not generally the case. For example, the formation of vulcanized rubbers by cross-linking macromolecules can be exactly described as a second order phase transition from an equilibrium fluid to an equilibrium solid state, and amorphous solidification also arises in diverse physical gels in which molecular and particle localization occurs predominantly through transient molecuar associations, or even topological interactions. As equilibrium, or near equilibrium systems, such gels can be expected to exhibit universal linear and non-linear viscoelastic properties, especially near the “critical” conditions at which the gel state first emerges. In particular, a power-law viscoelastic response is frequently observed in gel materials near their “gelation” or “amorphous solidification” transition. Another basic property of physical gels of both theoretical and practical interest is their response to large stresses at constant shear rate or under a fixed macrocopic strain. In particular, these materials are often quite sensitive to applied stresses that can cause the self-assembled structure to progressively break down under flow or deformation. This disintegration of gel structure can lead to “yield” of the gel material, i.e., a fluidization transition, followed by shear thinning of the resulting heterogeneous “jelly-like” fluid. When the stress is removed, however, the material can relax back to its former equilibrium gel state, i.e., gel rejuvenation. In constrast, a non-equilibrium material will simply change its form and properties in a way that depends on processing history. Physical gels are thus unique self-healing materials in which the existence of equilibrium ensures their eventual recovery. The existence of equilibrium also has implications for the nature of both the linear and non-linear rheological response of gel materials, and the present paper explores this phenomenon based on simple scaling arguments of the kind frequently used in describing phase transitions and the properties of polymer solutions.