File: Electrostatic interaction of neutral semi-permeable membranes

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Olga I. Vinogradova, Lyderic Bocquet, Artem N. Bogdanov, Roumen Tsekov and Vladimir Lobaskin

We consider an osmotic equilibrium between bulk solutions of polyelectrolyte bounded by semipermeable membranes and separated by a thin film of salt-free liquid. Although the membranes are neutral, the counter-ions of the polyelectrolyte molecules permeate into the gap and lead to a steric charge separation. This gives rise to a distance-dependent membrane potential, which translates into a repulsive electrostatic disjoining pressure. From the solution of the nonlinear Poisson–Boltzmann equation, we obtain the distribution of the potential and of ions. We then derive an explicit formula for the pressure exerted on the membranes and show that it deviates from the classical van’t Hoff expression for the osmotic pressure. This difference is interpreted in terms of a repulsive electrostatic disjoining pressure originating from the overlap of counterion clouds inside the gap. We also develop a simplified theory based on a linearized Poisson–Boltzmann approach. A comparison with simulation of a primitive model for the electrolyte is provided and does confirm the validity of the theoretical predictions. Beyond the fundamental result that the neutral surfaces can repel, this mechanism not only helps to control the adhesion and long-range interactions of living cells, bacteria, and vesicles, but also allows us to argue that electrostatic interactions should play enormous role in determining behavior and functions of systems bounded by semi-permeable membranes.

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