We report a combined rheology, x-ray photon correlation spectroscopy, and modeling study of gel formation and aging in suspensions of nanocolloidal spheres with volume fractions of 0.20 and 0.43 and with a short-range attraction whose strength is tuned by changing temperature. Following a quench from high temperature, where the colloids are essentially hard spheres, to a temperature below the gel point, the suspensions form gels that undergo aging characterized by a steadily increasing elastic shear modulus and slowing, increasingly constrained microscopic dynamics. The aging proceeds at a faster rate for stronger attraction strength. When the attraction strength is suddenly lowered during aging, the gel properties evolve non-monotonically in a manner resembling the Kovacs effect in glasses, in which the modulus decreases and the microscopic dynamics become less constrained for a period before more conventional aging resumes. Eventually, the properties of the gel following the decrease in attraction strength converge to those of a gel that has undergone aging at the lower attraction strength throughout. The time scale of this convergence increases as a power law with the age at which the attraction strength is decreased and decreases exponentially with the magnitude of the change in attraction. A model for gel aging in which particles attach and detach from the gel at rates that depend on their contact number reproduces these trends and reveals that the non-monotonic behavior results from the dispersion in the rates that the populations of particles with different contact number adjust to the new attraction strength.
We further note that the magnitude of spontaneous thermal fluctuations of bound particles should depend on the effective spring constant of the bonds κ and the number of contacts the particles make, , where rloc is the average particle localization length, and is the average contact number. Noting further that E = Nc(Tθ − T)/2, when combined with G′ ∼ E, leads to the familiar result .35