Nucleation Near the Spinodal: Limitations of Mean Field Density Functional Theory

Gerald Wilemski, Missouri University of Science and Technology
Jin-Song Li

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We investigate the diverging size of the critical nucleus near the spinodal using the gradient theory ~GT! of van der Waals and Cahn and Hilliard and mean field density functional theory ~MFDFT!. As is well known, GT predicts that at the spinodal the free energy barrier to nucleation vanishes while the radius of the critical fluctuation diverges. We show numerically that the scaling behavior found by Cahn and Hilliard for these quantities holds quantitatively for both GT and MFDFT. We also show that the excess number of molecules Dg satisfies Cahn-Hilliard scaling near the spinodal and is consistent with the nucleation theorem. From the latter result, it is clear that the divergence of Dg is due to the divergence of the mean field isothermal compressibility of the fluid at the spinodal. Finally, we develop a Ginzburg criterion for the validity of the mean field scaling relations. For real fluids with short-range attractive interactions, the near-spinodal scaling behavior occurs in a fluctuation dominated regime for which the mean field theory is invalid. Based on the nucleation theorem and on Wang's treatment of fluctuations near the spinodal in polymer blends, we infer a finite size for the critical nucleus at the pseudospinodal identified by Wang.