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Critical phenomena at the single-particle level

Boiling and condensation are among the best recognized phase transitions of condensed matter. Approaching the critical point, a liquid becomes indistinguishable from its vapour, the interfacial thickness diverges and the system is dominated by long-wavelength density fluctuations. Long wavelength usually means hundreds of particle diameters, but here we consider the limits of this assumption, using a mesoscopic analogue of simple liquids, a colloid-polymer mixture.
We simultaneously visualized both the colloidal particles and near-critical density fluctuations, and reveal particle-level images of the critical clusters and liquid-gas interface (see above). Surprisingly, we find that critical scaling does not break down until the correlation length approaches the size of the constituent particles, where there is a smooth transition to non-critical classical behaviour. Our results could provide a framework for unifying the disparate particle and correlation length scales, and bring new insight into the nature of the liquid?gas interface and the limit of the critical regime.

 

Royall CP, Aarts, DGAL and Tanaka H, 'Bridging lengthscales in colloidal liquid-vapour interfaces: from near-critical divergence to single particles’, Nature Physics, 3 636-640 (2007).
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