Understanding the origin of softness in structurally tailored and engineered macromolecular (STEM) gels: A DPD study


Structurally tailored and engineered macromolecular (STEM) gels are polymer networks containing a primary network (the “STEM-0” gel) and side chains that are anchored to this network (forming the “STEM-1” gel). The ability to vary the features of the side chains provides a robust means of tailoring the macroscopic properties of the material. We use dissipative particle dynamics (DPD) simulations to determine the mechanical response of STEM-1 gels to uniaxial compression for various values of the side chain length, . While the Young’s modulus of the material is significantly decreased with increasing (at a fixed density of grafted side chains), above a certain saturation value, increasing does not lead to any further softening of the sample. Using the simulations, we calculate the relevant stresses, which are related to the Young’s modulus and the number of entanglements in the network. We show that the backbone chains become more spread out upon addition of sidechains, leading to a decrease in the physical entanglements between backbone segments. This observation accounts for the decrease of stress in the backbone network and the softening of the networks through the addition of sidechains. For long chains, however, the number density of physical crosslinks between side chains is independent of side chain length; this observation explains the observed stress saturation in the STEM-1 gels. Our approach allows us to correlate the molecular architecture of the gels to the resultant macroscopic mechanical behavior and provide guidelines for fabricating STEM gels with well-defined mechanical properties, which allow the materials to be used for a variety of applications.

Polymer, 208, 122909
Tao Zhang
Tao Zhang
Special Research Fellow