Various free radical surface initiated polymerization (SIP) conditions were investigated on clay nanoparticles coated with monocationic 2,2-azobisisobutyronitrile (AIBN) type free radical initiators. Interesting differences in the mechanism of polymer nanocomposite product formation and the role of nanoparticle surface bound AIBN initiators were observed on three types of poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA) polymerization conditions: bulk, suspension, and solution. X-ray diffraction (XRD) and differential scanning calorimetry (DSC) measurements confirmed the attachment of the initiator on the clay particles without decomposition of the azo group. XRD and transmission electron microscopy (TEM) showed that a well-dispersed structure was accomplished only by bulk and solution SIP. The suspension SIP product consisted of a partially exfoliated structure as shown by XRD and clay particle aggregate formation as shown by TEM. In general, the molecular weights (MWs) of the surface bound polymers were found to be lower than those of the free polymer. Using the same clay loading and initiator concentrations, we observed that relatively higher MW polymers were obtained from suspension and bulk polymerizations in contrast to solution method. However, the most interesting observation is that the surface bound polymers (on all three conditions) showed much narrower polydispersity compared to that of a typical AIBN type free radical polymerization.
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