The Free Energy Density of a Fluid and its Role in Solvation and Binding

03 November 2023, Version 3
This content is a preprint and has not undergone peer review at the time of posting.


The concept that a fluid has a position-dependent free energy density appears in the literature but has not been fully developed or accepted. We set this concept on an unambiguous theoretical footing via the following strategy. First, we set forth four desiderata that should be satisfied by any definition of the position-dependent free energy density, f(R), in a system comprising only a fluid and a rigid solute: its volume integral, plus the fixed internal energy of the solute, should be the system free energy; it deviates from its bulk value, f_bulk, near a solute but should asymptotically approach f_bulk with increasing distance from the solute; it should go to zero where the solvent density goes to zero; and it should be well-defined in the most general case of a fluid made up of flexible molecules with an arbitrary interaction potential. Second, we use statistical thermodynamics to formulate a definition of the free energy density that satisfies these desiderata. Third, we show how any free energy density satisfying the desiderata may be used to analyze molecular processes in solution. In particular, because the spatial integral of f(R) equals the free energy of the system, it can be used to compute free energy changes that result from the rearrangement of solutes, as well as the forces exerted on the solutes by the solvent. In particular, we discuss the thermodynamic analysis of water in protein binding sites to inform ligand design. Finally, we discuss related literature and address published concerns regarding the thermodynamic plausibility of a position-dependent free energy density. The theory presented here has applications in theoretical and computational chemistry and may be further generalizable beyond fluids, such as to solids and macromolecules.


molecular recognition
drug design
free energy density
mutual information
surface tension


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