A new paradigm for the molecular basis of rubber elasticity

DE Hanson and JL Barber, CONTEMPORARY PHYSICS, 56, 319-337 (2015).

DOI: 10.1080/00107514.2015.1006810

The molecular basis for rubber elasticity is arguably the oldest and one of the most important questions in the field of polymer physics. The theoretical investigation of rubber elasticity began in earnest almost a century ago with the development of analytic thermodynamic models, based on simple, highly-symmetric configurations of so-called Gaussian chains, i.e. polymer chains that obey Markov statistics. Numerous theories have been proposed over the past 90years based on the ansatz that the elastic force for individual network chains arises from the entropy change associated with the distribution of end-to-end distances of a free polymer chain. There are serious conceptual objections to this assumption and others, such as the assumption that all network nodes undergo a simple volume-preserving linear motion and that all of the network chains have the same length. Recently, a new paradigm for elasticity in rubber networks has been proposed that is based on mechanisms that originate at the molecular level. Using conventional statistical mechanics analyses, Quantum Chemistry, and Molecular Dynamics simulations, the fundamental entropic and enthalpic chain extension forces for polyisoprene (natural rubber) have been determined, along with estimates for the basic force constants. Concurrently, the complex morphology of natural rubber networks (the joint probability density distributions that relate the chain end-to-end distance to its contour length) has also been captured in a numerical model (EPnet). When molecular chain forces are merged with the network structure in this model, it is possible to study the mechanical response to tensile and compressive strains of a representative volume element of a polymer network. As strain is imposed on a network, pathways of connected taut chains, that completely span the network along strain axis, emerge. Although these chains represent only a few percent of the total, they account for nearly all of the elastic stress at high strain. Here we provide a brief review of previous elasticity theories and their deficiencies, and present a new paradigm with an emphasis on experimental comparisons.

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