Friday, November 11, 2011

Kanto softmatter talk

A busy week is ending ... almost. I give a talk tomorrow at a workshop (yes, a Saturday !), on Monday I submit a research proposal to be paid from April. And after that I will have to work again on a paper that has been rejected.

Tomorrow is the kanto softmatter workshop, a very local meeting for the soft matter labs around Tokyo. Talks are only given by young researchers, not by big names. That is why I have an opportunity to talk. In larger conferences until now I only got poster presentations. Well, there is no bed of roses.

I will talk about my thesis work, in particular the content of the paper that was rejected: what are the local structures playing a role in a model of glass transition and which one is more important than the other. The answer is rather surprising. A glass is amorphous, so most people think that a glass is the opposite of a crystal. Therefore if glass has a structure this structure must be very different and incompatible with the crystal symmetry. That's why icosahedral order is often exhibited as a typical glass order.

A icosahedron is a solid with 20 identical faces. Like this dice used in Dungeons&Dragons.
via Wikimedia
13 particles forming a perfect icosahedron, from my thesis
As you can see, there are pentagons everywhere in that structure: icosahedron has 5-fold symmetries. The problem with five-fold symmetry is that it cannot pave space (at least in 2D and 3D). Try to pack them together and you will always have gaps.
By JF Sadoc via Wikimedia

However, the icosahedron is very dense and often maximises locally the interaction energy between the particles. Icosahedral order is locally the best structure, so it forms easily in a dense liquid, but cannot spread. That is what is called frustration.

What one can image in a supercooled liquid is icosahedral bits, probably forming a sort of network or fractal, and total disorder in the gaps. The icosahedral structure is stable, so is moves very slowly and slows the overall dynamics. If we are still in the liquid a given icosahedral bit will eventually disappears while order is formed elsewhere, but in the glass even that rearrangement is forbidden, too costly in energy to append in a reasonable time, so everything is stuck. Here is an explanation of the glass transition.

Another explanation (advertise by my boss, so my judgement may be biased) is that a supercooled liquid is by definition metastable to the crystal, so the liquids "wants" to become a crystal. Things are getting in the way (like icosahedron for example) so the crystal is not formed. However, there are stuffs in the supercooled liquid that look like a little bit like crystals. Not very healthy crystal if you pass me the expression; hunchbacks, twisted legs, broken faces, no arms ... still if you look close enough the local structure is closer to the crystal than anything else.
a) displacements b) crystalline order and c) number of neighbours in a 2D shaken granular supercooled fluid. From Keiji Watanabe and Hajime Tanaka,
Physical Review Letters (2008).
Once you have a method to detect these crystal-like stuffs, which has been done in an handful of models, you discover that they are slower than the rest of the liquid and that their size is growing when you get closer to the glass transition. Paradoxically isn't it the crystal that is responsible for the slowing down to the glass ?

Who is slowing down the system ? The locally favoured structure of the fluid or the influence of the crystal ? To answer this question I used a system that has independently icosahedra and crystal-like structures. In a few systems, people have found very slow icosahedral structures and some of them exhibited it as the proof that liquid order was the culprit. However others remarked that the "crystal" in these systems actually contains some icosahedral motifs. For example if the "crystal" is in fact a quasicrystal with five-fold symmetry, you cannot tell if the icosahedra that you see in the supercooled liquid come from the locally favoured structure of the liquid or as crystal-like stuff.
A Frank-Kasper phase, which is a crystal containing icosahedra (large blue spheres). From the Trebin lab in the university of Stuttgart.
A quasicrystal with icosahedral symmetry, via Wikimedia

To avoid that confusion, my system has a well known crystal of face centered cubic structure, without a glimpse of icosahedron in it. In addition, icosahedral order is locally favoured. In that situation, no mistake possible, the slower structure wins.

And at the end, I found that the icosahedral bits play very little role in the slowing down, the crystal-like bits are doing all the slowing work. Of course Icosahedral order plays a role : it is frustrating the crystallisation, and that is thanks to that frustration that we are able to supercool the liquid in the first place. However, that is the influence of the crystal that governs the slowing down and thus the glass transition.

Details in the paper to come ... when accepted.

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