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Cluster formation in fluids with competing short-range and long-range interactions

Sweatman, Martin B. and Fartaria, Rui and Lue, Leo (2014) Cluster formation in fluids with competing short-range and long-range interactions. Journal of Chemical Physics, 140 (12). ISSN 0021-9606

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We investigate the low density behaviour of fluids that interact through a short-ranged attraction together with a long-ranged repulsion (SALR potential) by developing a molecular thermodynamic model. The SALR potential is a model of effective solute interactions where the solvent degrees of freedom are integrated-out. For this system, we find that clusters form for a range of interaction parameters where attractive and repulsive interactions nearly balance, similar to micelle formation in aqueous surfactant solutions. We focus on systems for which equilibrium behaviour and liquid-like clusters (i.e., droplets) are expected, and find in addition a novel coexistence between a low density cluster phase and a high density cluster phase within a very narrow range of parameters. Moreover, a simple formula for the average cluster size is developed. Based on this formula, we propose a non-classical crystal nucleation pathway whereby macroscopic crystals are formed via crystal nucleation within microscopic precursor droplets. We also perform large-scale Monte Carlo simulations, which demonstrate that the cluster fluid phase is thermodynamically stable for this system.