Molecular dynamics investigation of giant clustering in small-molecule solutions: the case of aqueous PEHA

Nasser Afify, Carlos Ferreiro-Rangel, Martin Sweatman*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The importance of the formation of giant clusters in solution, in nature and industry, is increasingly recognized. However, relatively little attention has been paid to the formation of giant clusters in solutions of small, relatively soluble but non-amphiphilic molecules. In this work, we present a general methodology based on molecular dynamics that can be used to investigate such systems. As a case study, we focus on the formation of apparently stable clusters of pentaethylenehexamine (PEHA) in water. These clusters have been used as templates for the construction of bioinspired silica nanoparticles. To better understand clustering in this system we study the effect of PEHA protonation state (neutral, +1, and +2) and counterion type (chloride or acetate) on PEHA clustering in dilute aqueous solutions (200 mM and 400 mM) using large-scale classical molecular dynamics. We find that large stable clusters are formed by singly-charged PEHA with chloride or acetate as the counterion, although it is not clear for the case with acetate whether bulk phase separation, that might lead to precipitation, would eventually occur. Large clusters also appear to be stable for doubly-charged PEHA with acetate, the less soluble counterion. We attribute this behavior to a form of complex coacervation, observed here for relatively small and highly soluble molecules (PEHA + counterion) rather than the large polyions usually found to form such coacervates. We discuss whether this behavior might also be described by an effective SALR (short-range attraction, long-range repulsion) interaction. This work might help future studies of additives for the design of novel bio-inspired templated nanomaterials and of giant clustering in small-molecule solutions more generally.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)8882–8891
JournalJournal of Physical Chemistry B (Soft Condensed Matter and Biophysical Chemistry)
Issue number43
Early online date25 Oct 2022
Publication statusPublished - 3 Nov 2022


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