Nature Materials

Direct imaging and mesoscale modelling of phase transitions in a nanostructured fluid

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The kinetics of phase transitions is essential for understanding pattern formation in structured fluids1,2. These fluids play a key role in the morphogenesis of biological cells1,3-5, and they are very common in pharmaceutical products and plastic materials2. Until now, it has not been possible to follow phase transitions in structured fluids experimentally in real time and with high spatial resolution. Previous work 1,2 has relied on static images and indirect experimental evidence from spatially averaging scattering experiments. Simulating the processes with computer models is a further challenge because of the multiple time and length scales involved6-14. Our movies based on in situ scanning force microscopy show the time sequence of the elementary steps of a phase transition in a fluid film of block copolymer from the cylinder to the perforated lamella phase. The movies validate a versatile simulation model that gives physical insight into the nature of the process. Our approach provides a means of improving the study and understanding of pattern formation processes in nanostructured fluids. We expect a significant impact on nanotechnology where block copolymers serve as self-organized templates for the synthesis of inorganic nanostructured materials15-24.