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Reprocessable Cross-Linked Polymer Networks: Are Associative Exchange Mechanisms Desirable?

Benjamin R. Elling, William R Dichtel
Published 2020 · Materials Science, Medicine

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Covalent adaptable networks (CANs) are covalently cross-linked polymers that may be reshaped via cross-linking and/or strand exchange at elevated temperatures. They represent an exciting and rapidly developing frontier in polymer science for their potential as stimuli-responsive materials and to make traditionally nonrecyclable thermosets more sustainable. CANs whose cross-links undergo exchange via associative intermediates rather than dissociating to separate reactive groups are termed vitrimers. Vitrimers were postulated to be an attractive subset of CANs, because associative cross-link exchange mechanisms maintain the original cross-link density of the network throughout the exchange process. As a result, associative CANs demonstrate a gradual, Arrhenius-like reduction in viscosity at elevated temperatures while maintaining mechanical integrity. In contrast, CANs reprocessed by dissociation and reformation of cross-links have been postulated to exhibit a more rapid decrease in viscosity with increasing temperature. Here, we survey the stress relaxation behavior of all dissociative CANs for which variable temperature stress relaxation or viscosity data are reported to date. All exhibit an Arrhenius relationship between temperature and viscosity, as only a small percentage of the cross-links are broken instantaneously under typical reprocessing conditions. As such, dissociative and associative CANs show nearly identical reprocessing behavior over broad temperature ranges typically used for reprocessing. Given that the term vitrimer was coined to highlight an Arrhenius relationship between viscosity and temperature, in analogy to vitreous glasses, we discourage its continued use to describe associative CANs. The realization that the cross-link exchange mechanism does not greatly influence the practical reprocessing behavior of most CANs suggests that exchange chemistries can be considered with fewer constraints, focusing instead on their activation parameters, synthetic convenience, and application-specific considerations.
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