Cellulose nanofibrils (CNFs) are considered next generation, renewable reinforcements for sustainable, high-performance bioinspired nanocomposites uniting high stiffness, strength and toughness. However, the challenges associated with making well-defined CNF/polymer nanopaper hybrid structures with well-controlled polymer properties have so far hampered to deduce a quantitative picture of the mechanical properties space and deformation mechanisms, and limits the ability to tune and control the mechanical properties by rational design criteria. Here, we discuss detailed insights on how the thermo-mechanical properties of tailor-made copolymers govern the tensile properties in bioinspired CNF/polymer settings, hence at high fractions of reinforcements and under nanoconfinement conditions for the polymers. To this end, we synthesize a series of fully water-soluble and nonionic copolymers, whose glass transition temperatures (Tg) are varied from −60 to 130 °C. We demonstrate that well-defined polymer-coated core/shell nanofibrils form at intermediate stages and that well-defined nanopaper structures with tunable nanostructure arise. The systematic correlation between the thermal transitions in the (co)polymers, as well as its fraction, on the mechanical properties and deformation mechanisms of the nanocomposites is underscored by tensile tests, SEM imaging of fracture surfaces and dynamic mechanical analysis. An optimum toughness is obtained for copolymers with a Tg close to the testing temperature, where the soft phase possesses the best combination of high molecular mobility and cohesive strength. New deformation modes are activated for the toughest compositions. Our study establishes quantitative structure/property relationships in CNF/(co)polymer nanopapers and opens the design space for future, rational molecular engineering using reversible supramolecular bonds or covalent cross-linking.
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