Modulation of substrate van der Waals forces using varying thicknesses of polymer overlayers

Hongfang Wang, Drew Evans, Nicolas H. Voelcker, Hans J. Griesser, Laurence Meagher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


Thin polymeric coatings are commonly used for altering surface properties and modulating the interfacial performance of materials. Possible contributions from the substrate to the interfacial forces and effects are, however, usually ignored and are not well understood, nor is it established how the coating thickness modulates and eventually eliminates contributions from substrates to the van der Waals (vdW) interfacial force. In this study we quantified, by colloid-probe atomic force microscope (AFM) and by theoretical calculations, the interfacial vdW contributions from substrates acting through ethanol plasma polymer (EtOHpp) coatings of a range of thicknesses on Au and Si bulk materials. In approach force curves against EtOHpp-coated Au substrates the magnitude of the vdW force decreased as the EtOHpp coating thickness increased to 18 nm and then plateaued with further increases in coating thickness, providing direct evidence for a contribution to the total interfacial vdW force from the Au substrate acting through thin coatings. The experimental observations accord with theoretical calculations of the thickness dependence of Hamaker coefficients derived from rigorous simulation using the Lifshitz theory. In addition, the measured forces agree well with theoretical predictions including correction for finite roughness. Thus, our experimental and theoretical results establish how the thickness of polymer thin film coatings modulates the total interfacial vdW force and how this can be used to tune the net vdW force so as to either contain a large substrate contribution or arise predominantly from the polymeric overlayer. Our findings enable rational design of coating thickness to tailor interfacial interactions and material performance.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)690-699
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Colloid and Interface Science
Publication statusPublished - 15 Nov 2020


  • Coating thickness
  • Colloid-probe AFM
  • Hamaker constant
  • Interfacial forces
  • Lifshitz theory
  • Plasma polymer
  • Polymer coating
  • Substrate effects
  • Van der Waals force

Cite this