Self-assembled highly ordered acid layers in precisely sulfonated polyethylene produce efficient proton transport

EB Trigg and TW Gaines and M Marechal and DE Moed and P Rannou and KB Wagener and MJ Stevens and KI Winey, NATURE MATERIALS, 17, 725-+ (2018).

DOI: 10.1038/s41563-018-0097-2

Recent advances in polymer synthesis have allowed remarkable control over chain microstructure and conformation. Capitalizing on such developments, here we create well-controlled chain folding in sulfonated polyethylene, leading to highly uniform hydrated acid layers of subnanometre thickness with high proton conductivity. The linear polyethylene contains sulfonic acid groups pendant to precisely every twenty-first carbon atom that induce tight chain folds to form the hydrated layers, while the methylene segments crystallize. The proton conductivity is on par with Nafion 117, the benchmark for fuel cell membranes. We demonstrate that well-controlled hairpin chain folding can be utilized for proton conductivity within a crystalline polymer structure, and we project that this structure could be adapted for ion transport. This layered polyethylene-based structure is an innovative and versatile design paradigm for functional polymer membranes, opening doors to efficient and selective transport of other ions and small molecules on appropriate selection of functional groups.

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