This review is an extended version of the Overbeek lecture 2009, given at the occasion of the 23rd Conference of ECIS (European Colloid and Interface Society) in Antalya, where I received the fifth Overbeek Gold Medal awarded by ECIS. I first summarize the basics of numerical SF-SCF: the Scheutjens.Fleer version of Self-Consistent-Field theory for inhomogeneous systems, including polymer adsorption and depletion. The conformational statistics are taken from the (non-SCF) DiMarzio.Rubin lattice model for homopolymer adsorption, which enumerates the conformational details exactly by a discrete propagator for the endpoint distribution but does not account for polymer.solvent interaction and for the volume-filling constraint. SF-SCF corrects for this by adjusting the field such that it becomes self-consistent. The model can be generalized to more complex systems: polydispersity, brushes, random and block copolymers, polyelectrolytes, branching, surfactants, micelles, membranes, vesicles, wetting, etc. On a mean-field level the results are exact; the disadvantage is that only numerical data are obtained. Extensions to excluded-volume polymers are in progress. Analytical approximations for simple systems are based upon solving the Edwards diffusion equation. This equation is the continuum variant of the lattice propagator, but ignores the finite segment size (analogous to the Poisson.Boltzmann equation without a Stern layer). By using the discrete propagator for segments next to the surface as the boundary condition in the continuum model, the finite segment size can be introduced into the continuum description, like the ion size in the Stern.Poisson.Boltzmann model. In most cases a ground-state approximation is needed to find analytical solutions. In this way realistic analytical approximations for simple cases can be found, including depletion effects that occur in mixtures of colloids plus non-adsorbing polymers. In the final part of this review I discuss a generalization of the free-volume theory (FVT) for the phase behavior of colloids and non-adsorbing polymer. In FVT the polymer is considered to be ideal: the osmotic pressure Π follows the Van 't Hoff law, the depletion thickness δ equals the radius of gyration. This restricts the validity of FVT to the so-called colloid limit (polymer much smaller than the colloids). We have been able to find simple analytical approximations for Π and δ which account for non-ideality and include established results for the semidilute limit. So we could generalize FVT to GFVT, and can now also describe the so-called protein limit (polymer larger than the 'protein-like' colloids), where the binodal polymer concentrations scale in a simple way with the polymer/colloid size ratio. For an intermediate case (polymer size≈colloid size) we could give a quantitative description of careful experimental data. © 2010 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
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