Colloidal hard spheres at high volume fractions (beyond ~0.49) can crystallise: up to to 0.54, they coexist with a fluid phase, and at even higher densities they completely crystallise. The way the hard sphere fluid transforms into the solid is called crystal nucleation: due to thermal fluctuations, every now and then locally denser and more ordered regions appear and disappear; occasionally, these are large enough to further grow irreversibly, and form a crystalline region.

Nucleation is a generic process: in hard spheres, it should present its simplest traits, as it can be driven only by entropic forces. Yet, nucleation rates in colloidal hard spheres are rather different from what can be predicted from theory and numerical simulations. In particular, the discrepancy between the two increases of many orders of magnitude with decreasing the volume fraction from, for example, 0.55 to 0.53. Simulations normally consider idealised hard spheres in an ideal solvent. What could possibly go wrong?

Nick Wood, a talented PhD student here in Bristol, has taken care of some potential origins of the discrepancy analysing the effect of sedimentation on local order. Together with John Russo and Paddy Royall, we have considered in our recent paper how the flow induced by sedimentation may, via hydrodynamics interactions, transform the structure of the liquid, compared to the case in absence of sedimentation, and how such changes would impact on the nucleation barriers. The result is that some structural signatures clearly vary as a function of the density mismatch between colloids and solvent and that this leads to an estimated correction of the rates in the right direction, but by an amount that is not sufficent to address the entire discrepancy.

The complete article can be found here:

Nicholas Wood, John Russo, Francesco Turci and C. Patrick Royall J. Chem. Phys. 149, 204506 (2018); https://doi.org/10.1063/1.5050397