Origin and detection of microstructural clustering in fluids with spatial-range competitive interactions
Fluids with competing short-range attractions and long-range repulsions mimic dispersions of charge-stabilized colloids that can display equilibrium structures with intermediate-range order (IRO), including particle clusters. Using simulations and analytical theory, we demonstrate how to detect cluster formation in such systems from the static structure factor and elucidate links to macrophase separation in purely attractive reference fluids. We find that clusters emerge when the thermal correlation length encoded in the IRO peak of the structure factor exceeds the characteristic length scale of interparticle repulsions. We also identify qualitative differences between the dynamics of systems that form amorphous versus microcrystalline clusters.