Get the full paper here: ACS Appl. Mat. Interface 8, 11031 (2016).
Natural composites are hierarchically structured by combination of ordered colloidal and molecular length scales. They inspire future, biomimetic, and lightweight nanocomposites, in which extraordinary mechanical properties are in reach by understanding and mastering hierarchical structure formation as tools to engineer multiscale deformation mechanisms. Here we describe a hierarchically self-assembled, cholesteric nanocomposite with well-defined colloid-based helical structure and supramolecular hydrogen bonds engineered on the molecular level in the polymer matrix. We use reversible addition–fragmentation transfer polymerization to synthesize well-defined hydrophilic, nonionic polymers with a varying functionalization density of 4-fold hydrogen-bonding ureidopyrimidinone (UPy) motifs. We show that these copolymers can be coassembled with cellulose nanocrystals (CNC), a sustainable, stiff, rod-like reinforcement, to give ordered cholesteric phases with characteristic photonic stop bands. The dimensions of the helical pitch are controlled by the ratio of polymer/CNC, confirming a smooth integration into the colloidal structure. With respect to the effect of the supramolecular motifs, we demonstrate that those regulate the swelling when exposing the biomimetic hybrids to water, and they allow engineering the photonic response. Moreover, the amount of hydrogen bonds and the polymer fraction are decisive in defining the mechanical properties. An Ashby plot comparing previous ordered CNC-based nanocomposites with our new hierarchical ones reveals that molecular engineering allows us to span an unprecedented mechanical property range from highest inelastic deformation (strain up to ∼13%) to highest stiffness (E ∼ 15 GPa) and combinations of both. We envisage that further rational design of the molecular interactions will provide efficient tools for enhancing the multifunctional property profiles of such bioinspired nanocomposites.