"Wet-to-dry” conformational transition of polymer layers grafted to nanoparticles in nanocomposite
C. Chevigny, J. Jestin, D. Gigmes, R. Schweins, E. Di-Cola, F. Dalmas, D. Bertin and F. Boué, Macromolecules, 43 (11) (2010) 4833
The present communication reports the first direct measurement of the conformation of a polymer corona grafted around silica nano-particles dispersed inside a nanocomposite, a matrix of the same polymer. This measurement constitutes an experimental breakthrough
based on a refined combination of chemical synthesis, which permits to match the contribution of the neutron silica signal inside the composite, and the use of complementary scattering methods SANS and SAXS to extract the grafted polymer layer form factor from the inter-particles silica structure factor. The modelization of the signal of the grafted polymer on nanoparticles inside the matrix and the direct comparison with the form factor of the same particles in solution show a clear-cut change of the polymer conformation from bulk to the nanocomposite: a transition from a stretched and swollen form in solution to a Gaussian conformation in the matrix followed with a compression of a factor two of the grafted corona. In the probed range, increasing the interactions between the grafted particles (by increasing the particle volume fraction) or between the grafted and the free matrix chains (decreasing the grafted-free chain length ratio) does not influence the amplitude of the grafted brush compression. This is the first direct observation of the wet-to-dry conformational transition theoretically expected to minimize the free energy of swelling of grafted chains in interaction with free matrix chains, illustrating the competition between the mixing entropy of grafted and free chains, and the elastic deformation of the grafted chains. In addition to the experimental validation of the theoretical prediction, this result constitutes a new insight for the understanding of the general problem of dispersion of nanoparticles inside a polymer matrix for the design of new nanocomposites materials.