Nanotube Dispersion and Polymer Conformational Confinement in a Nanocomposite Fiber: A Joint Computational Experimental Study

JS Meng and YY Zhang and SW Cranford and ML Minus, JOURNAL OF PHYSICAL CHEMISTRY B, 118, 9476-9485 (2014).

DOI: 10.1021/jp504726w

A combination of computational and experimental methods was implemented to understand and confirm that conformational changes of a polymer specifically polyacrylonitrile (PAN) vary with the dispersion quality and confinement between single-wall carbon nanotubes (SWNT) in the composite fibers. A shear-flow gel-spinning approach was utilized to produce PAN-based composite fibers with high concentration (i.e., loading of 10 wt %) of SWNT. Dispersion qualities of SWNT ranging from low to high were identified in the fibers, and their effects on the structural morphologies and mechanical properties of the composites were examined. These results show that, as the SWNT dispersion quality in terms of distribution in the fiber and exfoliation increases, PAN conformations were confined to the extended-chain form. Full atomistic computational results show that the surface interaction energy between isolated PAN and SWNT was not preferred, leading to the self- agglomeration of PAN. However, confinement of the polymer chains between SWNT bundles or individual tubes (i.e., molecular crowding) resulted in large increases in the PAN SWNT interaction energy. In other words, the crowding of polymer chains by the SWNT at high concentrations can promote extended-chain conformational development during fiber spinning. This was also evidenced experimentally by the observance of significantly improved PAN orientation and crystallization in the composite. Ultimately this work provides fundamental insight toward the specific structural changes capable at the polymer/nanotube interface which are important toward improvement of the effective contribution of the SWNT to the mechanical performance of the composite.

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