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Controllable Free-Volume in Polymer-Grafted Nanoparticle Membranes: Origins, Characterization, and Applications

Buenning, Eileen Nicole Doerner

Polymer based membranes play a key role in several industrially important gas separation technologies, e.g., removing CO2 from natural gas, with enormous economic and environmental impact. In this thesis, we develop a novel hybrid membrane construct comprised entirely of inorganic nanoparticles grafted with polymer chains. For all graft architectures studied, the permeability of several small gases and condensable solvents are higher in GNP membranes than the neat polymer analogs. More interestingly, the matrix-free GNPs displayed a non-monotonic peak in gas permeability as a function of grafted chain molecular weight, M_n, at a fixed grafting density, σ. Furthermore, in contrast to neat polymer membranes, which suffer from degraded performance over time due to chain densification and “aging”, the performance of GNP membranes is preserved for months to years. We show that these enhancements are not limited to a single polymer, thus we suggest that this grafting mechanism may be an option to improve permeability in polymer membranes in general.
We conjecture the grafted polymer chains must stretch to fill the interstitial voids in the NP “lattice”, as such voids would be free-energetically unfavorable due to the relatively high surface tension of the polymer melt. Since this stretching leads to an unfavorable chain conformational entropy, we expect a decrease in the polymer density, which we verify experimentally as well as through molecular dynamics simulations. When a penetrant molecule is placed in these regions of highest distortion, the chains can assume more favored, undistorted conformations. This in turn creates a driving force for further penetrant uptake. Therefore, we systematically study the structure and dynamics of matrix-free GNP materials at various chain grafting densities and a wide range of graft molecular weight. Small angle scattering experiments reveal that the core nanoparticle spacing systematically increases with increasing molecular weight but the overall morphology remains amorphous and isotropic. Whereas previous studies1 have found the brush height in matrix-free GNPs scales as the degree of polymerization 〖~N〗^0.5, we find that the brush height in our systems scales 〖~N〗^0.7, indicating the chains are indeed highly stretched. Moreover, studies of the structural evolution upon swelling with solvent show that the brush is fully wetted and the solvent distribution is homogeneous within the film.
Additionally, we systematically probe the dynamics of matrix-free GNP systems over broad length and time scales using linear and non-linear mechanical rheology, and broadband dielectric spectroscopy. The linear viscoelastic response shows that while the polymeric signal (e.g. glassy and Rouse dynamics) is equivalent for a range of graft chain lengths, the terminal flow of these materials is slowed by several decades compared to the neat melts of corresponding molecular weight. The low frequency (long time) response shows that below a critical molecular weight, these systems transition from polymeric to that of a colloidal system. To understand this behavior, a scaling theory is developed to describe the polymer brush conformation, which reveals that at this transition point the grafted particles behave as a system of packed “rigid” spheres. We note that the transition point coincides with the maximum observed in the transport behavior, and that the reduced system mobility may be responsible for the reduced aging effects. On the other hand, secondary relaxations for GNPs at this transition molecular weight are found to be faster than the neat polymer of corresponding molecular weight, which is attributed to a lower effective polymer density found in these samples. Therefore, the critical question underpinning this work is: how do the structure and dynamics influence and/or result from increased free volume in matrix-free grafted nanoparticle materials? We conclude that matrix-free grafted nanoparticle constructs allow for precise control of structure-property relationships over multiple length scales, and serve as a novel materials design platform with the potential to function as high performance gas separation technologies.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Chemical Engineering
Thesis Advisors
Kumar, Sanat K.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 1, 2018