Read the full article here: Macromolecules 2020, 53, 5, 1716-1725
Nacre-mimetic nanocomposites based on high fractions of synthetic high-aspect-ratio nanoclays in combination with polymers are continuously pushing boundaries for advanced material properties, such as high barrier against oxygen, extraordinary mechanical behavior, fire shielding, and glass-like transparency. Additionally, they provide interesting model systems to study polymers under nanoconfinement due to the well-defined layered nanocomposite arrangement. Although the general behavior in terms of forming such layered nanocomposite materials using evaporative self-assembly and controlling the nanoclay gallery spacing by the nanoclay/polymer ratio is understood, some combinations of polymer matrices and nanoclay reinforcement do not comply with the established models. Here, we demonstrate a thorough characterization and analysis of such an unusual polymer/nanoclay pair that falls outside of the general behavior. Poly(ethylene oxide) (PEO) and sodium fluorohectorite form nacre-mimetic, lamellar nanocomposites that are completely transparent and show high mechanical stiffness and high gas barrier, but there is only limited expansion of the nanoclay gallery spacing when adding increasing amounts of polymer. This behavior is maintained for molecular weights of PEO varied over four orders of magnitude and can be traced back to depletion forces. By careful investigation via X-ray diffraction and proton low-resolution solid-state NMR, we are able to quantify the amount of mobile and immobilized polymer species in between the nanoclay galleries and around proposed tactoid stacks embedded in a PEO matrix. We further elucidate the unusual confined polymer dynamics, indicating a relevant role of specific surface interactions.