Intermolecular interactions drive the vast majority of condensed phase phenomena from molecular recognition to protein folding to particle adhesion. Complex energy barriers encountered in these interactions include contributions from van der Waals forces, hydrogen bonding, and solvent medium. With the spectacular exception of hydrophobic interactions, contributions from the medium are usually considered secondary. We report a variable temperature force microscopy study of the interactions between several hydrogen bonds in different solvents that challenges this point of view. Surprisingly, we observed an increase in the strength of the interaction between carboxylic acid groups in ethanol as the temperature increased. Moreover, when we switched to a nonpolar solvent we observed the opposite behavior: The binding force decreased as the temperature increased. Kinetic model of bond dissociation provided quantitative interpretation of our measurements. We attributed the observed phenomena to a large entropic contribution from the ordered solvent layers that are forming on the probe and sample surfaces upon detachment. The observed reversal in the force vs temperature trend is a manifestation of a transition between thermodynamic and kinetic regimes of unbinding predicted by the model. Our results indicate that entropic barriers dominated by the interactions of solvent molecules with the surface exist in a much wider variety of systems than previously thought.
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