Biodegradable polymers, as well as polymers produced from renewable feedstocks, are attracting increasing interests as possible substitutes for conventional plastics: a higher energy efficiency in synthesis and processing steps must be continuously pursued in order to maximize the intrinsic environmental benefits brought by this class of materials. Microwave assisted organic synthesis (MAOS) is nowadays a major topic in green chemistry and a great (yet rising) number of papers can already be found that report striking advantages over conventional thermal heating. Nonetheless microwave (MW) energy sources are recently being chosen also for several polymerization reactions. Indeed, reduced heating times and superior homogeneity provided by MW reactors may play a central role in optimizing production processes, with a dramatic improvement in the environmental performance. In the introduction of this chapter we’re briefly recalling some theoretical principles of microwave-matter interaction; several experimental setups are then examined and, eventually, thermal and non-thermal specific microwave effects are described and commented. The following paragraph is dedicated to a comprehensive survey of synthesis examples found in scientific literature and categorized by polymerization technique, in which particular relevance is given to products of increasing commercial importance like poly(ε-caprolactone) (PCL) and poly(lactic acid) (PLA). A third part of the chapter deals with the employment of microwave heating for chemical modification and processing of polymers; the last paragraph summarizes advantages and drawbacks of microwave assisted polymer chemistry, stressing the energy efficiency topic and drawing conclusions.
1.1. Theoretical principles of microwave irradiation
Microwaves are electromagnetic radiations characterized by frequencies that extend from 0.3 GHz (corresponding to an energy of 1.2 × 10-6 eV) to 30 GHz (1.2 × 10-3 eV), covering the portion of the spectrum between the less energetic Radio waves and the more energetic Infrared waves. Due to an intensive employment by the information and telecommunication technologies, only few frequencies among the whole microwave band are actually available for scientific, industrial and household heating applications: in order to avoid any interference, the vast majority of devices operates at 2.45 GHz (1.0 × 10-5 eV). Comparing the latter value to the energy associated with some common covalent bonds (C-C single bond: 3.61 eV; C=C double bond: 6.35 eV) or even with a weaker interaction like hydrogen bond (0.04 – 0.44 eV) it is clear that microwaves do not posses enough energy to induce a chemical reaction by breaking any of these. Very often, indeed, the impressive shortening of reaction times, reported by the authors cited in the following paragraphs, is ascribed to peculiarities in the heating process like homogeneity, inverted temperature gradient (i.e. vial walls are colder than reactants in the bulk) and extremely fast temperature increase. The interaction between microwaves and the electric dipoles of irradiated reactants or solvent molecules is what underlies “dielectric heating”. Since the order of magnitude of molecular rotational frequencies is lower, but quite close to microwave frequencies, the tendency to align with the oscillating electromagnetic field produces an immediate and simultaneous motion that can’t indefinitely follow the oscillating field and eventually results in thermalization. Kinetic energy is transformed into heat via phenomena (i.e. phase shifts and dielectric losses deriving from molecular friction) whose mechanism depends on both molecular mass (more correctly on rotational moment of inertia) and dielectric coefficient “ε” of each component of the irradiated reaction mixture. Dielectric coefficient (or complex permittivity) consists of a real component and of an imaginary component (ε = ε’ + iε’’): widely adopted parameters to describe the efficiency of radiation-to-heat conversion are the “loss factor”(ε”) and the “dissipation factor”, indicated with “tan(δ)” or “D” and defined as:
Polar solvents and reactants normally possess high values of tan(δ), indicating strong microwave absorption; on the other hand low values shown by most non-polar substances indicate transparency and inefficient energy transfer (Fig. 1).
Even if, commonly, homogeneous heating represents a topic feature of microwave devices it should be noted that highly dielectric materials rapidly diminish the incident radiation intensity, hence recourse to large volumes may cause shielding effects and colder matter at the core. This is the reason why “penetration depth”, defined as the point where only 37% (1/e) of the incident MW radiation is still present and calculated as the reciprocal of loss factor, turns out to be another useful parameter in the characterization of an experiment. Besides absorption and transmission, a third phenomenon can take place: radiation can be reflected by the surface of a body (highly conducting metals are important examples). This eventuality should generally be avoided in setting up a reaction since, while only negligible heating is generated in the reflecting material, microwave constructive interferences may arise elsewhere amid the irradiated matter and cause uneven temperature profiles and “hot spots” on account of local super-heating effects.
1.2. Microwave heating setups
Despite papers display sometimes poor technical detail, in microwave assisted synthesis (much more than in conventional chemistry) the choice of the experimental apparatus with its engineering specifications is a matter of chief importance. Reproducibility strongly depends on how accurately actual reaction parameters correspond to the user’s setup. Being able to properly tune and monitor the most important variables gives reproducible results that can be fruitfully compared with literature. Unquestionably huge improvements have been achieved in this regard during the last decades: with microwave assisted synthesis gaining more and more attention through the years, several dedicated reactors were commercialized. Nowadays these devices have replaced former domestic MW ovens in many laboratories, delivering new standards in terms of safety, efficacy and parameter regulation. Reactors are frequently subdivided in multi- and mono-modal depending on the way in which microwaves are directed from the magnetron to the sample. Multimodal devices generate a fairly homogeneous electromagnetic field distributing radiations towards different directions through a large cavity in which interference with reflected waves averages field intensity; monomodal devices, on the other hand, feature precisely calibrated waveguides in which radiation is reflected in phase to generate standing waves with a maximum placed at the sample compartment position. Domestic MW ovens are examples of multimodal instruments as well as some high-capacity scientific device, while monomodal applicators are found exclusively among dedicated scientific equipment. Some authors (Nuchter et al., 2004) point out that the aforementioned distinction holds true only until the reaction mixture is placed into the cavity, perturbing the emitted field and turning monomodal reactors into (partly) multimodal ones: a more useful classification should be based, in their view, on radiation intensity or power density. Nonetheless it is generally agreed that monomodal reactors are best suited for small loads (note that, for this class, viable volumes are limited by the dimension of the wavelength itself) since allow to minimize the occurrence of hot spots, a detrimental phenomenon that disturbs reactions in multimodal devices when uneven temperature profiles are not averaged out by a large amount of absorbing matter. This is the reason why it is often recommended (Bogdal et al., 2003) to fill multimodal cavities with samples occupying more than 50% of the available volume. When large volumes and reliable field homogeneities are required, applicators with radiant geometries may also be profitably employed: the possibility to place antennas in the cavity makes the field much less subject to perturbation by the load (Leonelli & Mason, 2010). It is worth noting that a central technical feature for synthetic purpose, generally offered by a professional apparatus, is the capability of emitting continuous (i.e. unpulsed) radiation, so that the reaction mixture is heated at a user-assigned power level that is constant with time. Inexpensive domestic ovens operate irradiating at their maximum power in a pulsed profile, with the on/off time ratio depending on the chosen power level: this means being able to tune average MW intensity in the whole irradiation period, but obviously exposes to the risk of momentary overheating. Temperature control represents a critical engineering point: some authors (F. Liu et al., 2010; Sharma & Mishra, 2010) still choose to perform the measure immediately after microwave exposure (even a conventional thermometer may be used in this case), however a real-time monitoring is usually favored, nowadays, in order to operate a more accurate control. Three configurations are adopted in the vast majority of the reported examples: at a laboratory scale (industrial application is dampened by their cost and fragility) the preferred and most affordable probes seem to be fiber-optic thermometers inserted in the reaction mixture using transparent tubes. The operative range is 0-300 °C and some authors report that after few hours at 250 °C permanent deterioration is already observable (Nuchter et al., 2004); nonetheless high temperature measurement (up to approx. 2000 °C) can be performed using sapphire based fiber-optic thermometers. Optical (IR) pyrometers represent a universally viable solution (widespread in commercial technical devices as well as utilizable for large scale industrial reactors) and offer a much wider temperature range (-40 °C to 1000 °C), but necessarily measure the temperature at the vial wall, which means they invariably underestimate the value. Shielded thermocouples are the cheapest option, can withstand temperatures up to 300 °C but are quite bulky and require lossy (polar) solvents to avoid excessive MW absorption by their metallic shields which would result in overheating effects and biased measurement. The choice of the proper solvent for a MW assisted reaction must take into account its dielectric coefficient (ε) and it is worth reminding that in most cases dielectric constants (ε’) significantly decrease with temperature (Fig. 2): an example is pressurized water at 300 °C showing a value of 20 which is very close to that of acetone at room temperature (Strauss & Trainor, 1995).
Non polar solvents may be employed improving their heating efficiency by small additions (few percents in weight) of miscible liquids with high loss factors or even salts, preferably with a sufficient solubility in order to assure homogeneous conditions (Lidström et al., 2001). A similar approach underlies the diffuse exploitation as heating elements of highly MW absorbing solids, like silicon carbide (Kremsner & Kappe, 2006) (Fig. 3), carbon black (F. Liu et al., 2010) or silica particles (P. Liu & Su, 2005). Microwave assisted reactions may also be conducted in environmentally friendly water-miscible ionic liquids which are characterized by high dielectric constants and offer the possibility of isolating hydrophobic products by the addition of water to the homogeneous solution (Guerrero-Sanchez et al., 2007).
When possible, the solvent-free option should always be favored on the basis of the green chemistry principles: the bulk ring opening polymerization of lactide to yield poly(lactic acid) is a notable case (Frediani et al., 2010). Early experiments were often performed in open vessels, at a temperature below the boiling point of high-boiling solvents (e.g. DMSO or DMF). This simplest configuration may as well comply with solvent-free reactions not requesting modified atmosphere, in which at least one of the reactants is a high-boiling liquid or a low-melting solid capable of efficient microwave absorption. Even if open vessels were tentatively adopted with more volatile solvents like toluene, increasing fire hazards brought by this choice should be seriously considered. Pressurized vials allow to use solvents at a temperature above their boiling point, considerably increasing reaction rates, though it should be noted that gas-tight sealed caps might cause explosions: technical devices usually feature dedicated vials equipped with proper septa capable of withstanding pressures up to a determinate value. Examples of customized reflux systems are frequently found in literature (Waugh & Parkin, 2010; Zhu et al., 2003): this particular setup proved to be safe and easy to scale-up, on the other hand it precludes overheating limiting the advantages of microwave irradiation over conventional heating. It is eventually worth mentioning that industrial-scale MW generators can be engineered to work efficiently under conditions from full vacuum to 1.03 MPa and from 30 °C to 200 °C (Leonelli et al., 2007). Microwave assisted synthesis is gaining increasing appeal for industrial applications, therefore the possibility of scaling-up reactions becomes a pivoting issue. One major limitation that prevents the load of large volumes at one time is the penetration depth of microwaves through lossy solvents or reactants: as already stated, the shielding of radiation by the peripheral matter produces inefficient heating at the core. Besides, heating large quantities of liquids in sealed vessels augments explosion hazard and obligate to employ thick, robust walls that must be MW transparent at the same time. It is eventually worth noting that massive quantities contained in thick vials are very difficult to cool rapidly and evenly with water or pressurized air. This critical points may be circumvented by loading high volumes in smaller, separated vials in parallel (a tedious configuration for large scale) or more efficiently by switching to a continuous flow reactor equipped with a relatively thin reaction tube through which reactants and solvents move in a necessarily homogeneous solution (Moseley & Woodman, 2008; Glasnow & Kappe, 2007). Open vials were successfully chosen for the irradiation of volumes up to 1000 mL (Deetlefs & Seddon, 2003) though it should be pointed out that MW penetration depth and the boiling point of the mixture limit the feasibility of such a layout. When only high-boiling substances are employed, solvent free reactions may also be performed with vials sealed under vacuum. As an example, the bulk ring opening polymerization of Caprolactone was recently performed loading five 1.8 L customized glass tubes with about 800 g of monomer each and irradiating simultaneously into a large multimodal microwave heater (Xu et al., 2010).
1.3. “Thermal” and “non-thermal” specific microwave effects
Since the early works, the astonishing increase in microwave-assisted reaction rates observed by many authors posed a number of questions about the rational origins of this phenomenon. A large variety of differences have been described between experiments conducted under conventional or microwave conditions: normally these findings are explained on the basis of rational hypotheses, but the lack of a rigorous and generally adopted terminology sometimes generates ambiguity when it comes to surveying the related literature. One frequent distinction is made between “thermal” and “non thermal” effects, sometimes called “specific microwave” effects. Precisely, also the “thermal” effects are microwave-specific: despite being based on heating phenomena they cannot be obtained by conventional oil baths. Dealing with variations in reaction kinetics, former works (Perreux & Loupy, 2001) sensibly suggested to refer to the Arrhenius equation:
In the equation three variables may be influenced by the use of microwaves as energy source, hence the rate (k) can be enhanced by three contributions: higher pre-exponential factor (A) due to increased collision efficiency; lower activation energy (ΔG ≠ = ΔH ≠ - TΔS ≠) due to stabilized polar transition states and eventually a higher actual temperature. The latter can obviously be listed as a “thermal” effect, and comprises the phenomena of local superheating and hotspots, inverted temperature gradient (i.e. wall effect), selective heating and similar. The variations of A and ΔG ≠, on the other hand, may stem from the peculiar mechanism of interaction between matter and electromagnetic field, and therefore could be catalogued as “non thermal” effects. It should be pointed out that this approach holds also for the quite frequent cases of altered or enhanced reaction selectivities: since thermodynamic parameters do not depend upon the energy source, selectivity could be identified, here, as a kinetic competition between two or more reaction pathways, keeping in mind that different molecules may absorb microwaves with a different efficiency. This fairly rigorous paradigm is sometimes not applied in the interpretation of real life experiments since relating the observed phenomena to the terms of the equation is not always straightforward. Some authors, indeed, simply compare the real temperatures monitored during conventional and microwave heating procedures and try to estimate whether thermal differences are important enough to justify the discrepancies in their results (Jing et al., 2006). While the occurrence of “non thermal” effects is sometimes claimed and sometimes ruled out, remaining a controversial topic, the factual relevance of “thermal” microwave effects is nowadays widely recognized (though an exhaustive rationalization of their occurrence is still to come). Descriptions of these phenomena are occasionally found and highlighted among the papers surveyed in the following paragraphs.
2. Microwave assisted synthesis of biodegradable and bio-based polymers
In this paragraph many works are mentioned and catalogued on the basis of the polymerization process: the next two sub paragraphs are dedicated, respectively, to step growth polymerizations and ring opening polymerizations. All the examples cited here deal with biodegradable or bio-based polymers (i.e. polymers totally or partly derived from renewable feedstocks) to emphasize the continuous diffusion and development of products with a more environmentally friendly perspective.
2.1. Step growth polymerizations
Step growth polymerizations generally involve bifunctional monomers yielding linear chains with functionalized terminations, capable of reacting with more monomer units. On account of the same principle, multifunctional monomers may be utilized to generate branched structures and thermosetting materials. The most common polymerizations in this class belong to the family of polycondensations, in which every coupling reaction implies the release of a small molecule (i.e. water).
2.1.1. Aliphatic polyesters
Among the conspicuous category of aliphatic polyesters many important examples of biodegradable and bio-based polymers can be found. An eco-friendly, solvent-free synthesis of poly(butylene succinate) (PBS) with a Mw of 1.03 × 104 g/mol and 2.35 × 104 g/mol was achieved by the use of microwave heating at a temperature of, respectively, 200 °C and 220 °C (Scheme 1). An irradiation time of 20 min was needed, while poly(buthylene succinate) with a Mw of 1.02 × 104 g/mol was obtained by conventional heating in 5 h. The polycondensation was performed under atmospheric pressure of N2, in the presence of 1,3-dichloro-1,1,3,3-tetrabutyldistannoxane as catalyst (Velmathi et al., 2005).
Several authors accomplished the direct polycondensation of lactic acid to yield poly(lactic acid) (PLA) under microwave conditions. Ring opening polymerization of Lactide (the cyclic dilactone of lactic acid) is usually favored for the synthesis of relatively high molecular weight PLAs (see paragraph 2.2.3), nonetheless this single-step route is often attempted on account of its simplicity and low cost. In a former work D,L-Lactic acid was polymerized in bulk in a domestic microwave oven for 30 min. at a power level of 650 W, yielding oligomers with molecular masses ranging from 500 to 2000 g/mol. Reaction time was significantly shortened comparing to 24 h of conventional heating at 100°C and molecular masses were found to increase with irradiation time, while yields followed an opposite trend; after 20 min. cyclic oligomers were also formed, affecting the physical properties of the product (Keki et al., 2001). More recently, P(L)LAs with markedly higher molecular masses (Mw ≈ 16,000 g/mol) were obtained within 30 min. of microwave irradiation employing a single-mode CEM
2.1.2. Other step growth polymerizations
The polycondensation of sebacic acid and ω-amino alcohols was performed in a variable frequency microwave reactor to yield poly(amide-ester)s with impressive mechanical properties yet susceptible to degradability by proteolytic enzymes. Temperature was set at 180 °C, 200 °C and 220 °C depending on the chosen amino alcohol and regulated by an on - off power switching; power level was kept relatively low (50-70 W) due to the strong absorption of the starting materials. Reaction time was reduced from 3h of conventional heating to 1h of microwave irradiation, while product yields, molecular masses, and physico-chemical properties were found to be equal or higher (Borriello et al. 2007). Poly(anhydride)s are studied since long time as drug delivery systems with a tunable surface erosion: the synthesis of several poly(anhydride)s from aliphatic and aromatic diacids were conducted under microwave conditions to reduce reaction times from 3 h to 6-20 min at atmospheric pressure. Molecular weights were similar to the product of conventional heating; working under vacuum, as well as the isolation of an intermediate acetylated prepolymer, was not necessary, drastically simplifying the synthetic procedure (Vogel et al., 2003). With the aim of valorizing renewable feedstocks, interesting poly(ether)s were synthesized from isosorbide (1,4:3,6-dianhydrosorbitol) and 1,8-dibromo- or 1,8-dimesyl-octane using phase transfer catalysis under microwave irradiation. A monomodal
2.2. Ring opening polymerizations
Ring opening polymerizations (ROPs) are nowadays widespread and very popular synthetic routes. The use of cyclic monomers exhibits some unquestionable advantages for the preparation of high molecular weight polymers since no byproduct (e.g. water) is released during the propagation step, avoiding chain scission as well as competition with monomers and consequential early chain termination. In some cases ring strain may also play a role in favoring the polymerization thermodynamically.
Poly(ε-caprolactone) (PCL) is not produced from renewable resources, nonetheless, in the continuously developing class of biodegradable polymers, it proved to be one of the most useful and attractive: the number of works in scientific literature concerning this polymer is indeed impressive, and several successful microwave assisted syntheses are reported. An early example of microwave assisted synthesis employed titanium tetrabutylate as catalyst and an impressively refined custom monomodal reactor: conversion, measured by means of viscosity build-up, and number average molecular weights were close to those observed for conventionally heated procedure and did not indicate any advantage in using microwave irradiation (Albert et al., 1996). Poly(caprolactone) with weight-average molar mass (Mw) over 4 × 104 was prepared by metal free, microwave assisted ring opening polymerization initiated by benzoic acid: the authors indicate that the ratio of polymer chain propagation was directly proportional to temperature between 160 °C and 230 °C, while above this interval the synthesized PCL degraded. A multimodal domestic MW oven was employed: power was modulated by power on-off cycles, temperature was monitored by a tin-grounded thermocouple and the reactions were performed in vacuum sealed ampoules. As stated by the authors, the advantage of microwave irradiation was the significantly enhanced propagation ratio of PCL chain while the formation of growing centers was greatly inhibited (Yu & Liu, 2004). Earlier, the same group compared the synthesis of PCL initiated by benzoic acid and chlorinated acetic acids (Fig. 4): in both cases higher Mw values and lower polydispersity indexes were observed with respect to conventional heating for an equal reaction time, nonetheless the molar masses of polymers synthesized employing chlorinated acids were lowered by degradation processes (Yu et al., 2003).
A lipase-catalyzed microwave assisted synthesis of PCL was attempted in several solvents at their boiling point and remarkably different behaviors were observed: while the reactions in toluene and benzene proceeded slower compared to oil bath heating, the reaction in diethyl ether showed an increased rate. It is known that the activity of the catalyst Novozyme 435, depends on temperature and on the polarity of the medium: no polymerization was indeed observed in polar solvents like THF or dioxane. Microwave irradiation was performed with a monomodal CEM-
Combining ring opening polymerization and microwave assisted “click” chemistry, acetylene-functionalized PCL was synthesized and reacted with heptakis-azido-β-cyclodextrin to obtain star shaped polymers. A tetra-arm metallopolymer was also achieved by the “supramolecular click” reaction between di(pyridinyl)piridazine-functionalized macroligands and Copper (I) ions (Hoogenboom et al., 2006). The 1-butyl-3-methylimidazolium tetrafluoroborate ionic liquid has been successfully used as solvent for the ROP of ε-caprolactone: on account of its efficient microwave energy absorption. PCL with Mw of 28,500 g/mol was obtained by means of a multimodal domestic oven at 85 W for 30 min, using Zinc oxide as catalyst (Liao et al., 2006). A large scale synthesis was recently performed using up to 2.45 Kg of monomer to assess the industrialization possibilities of microwave assisted ε-CL polymerization. A self-designed industrial microwave oven, capable of a maximum power of 6,000 W, was employed at different power levels and loaded with different amount of reactants: in any case the stannous octoate catalyzed ring opening polymerizations proceeded smoothly, yielding PCL with Mw ranging from 66,000 g/mol to 122,000 g/mol (Xu et al., 2010). The effects of the presence of diisopropyl hydrogen phosphonate (2.9%) on the microwave assisted synthesis of PCL was examined, concluding that the ROP was initiated by traces of water but could be catalyzed by the oligo(ε-caprolactone)-substituted hydrogen phosphonate resulting from transesterification reactions. A polymer with molecular weight of 8,100 g/mol was obtained in 100 min at 510 W of irradiation power (Tan et al., 2009).
2.2.2. Poly(ε-caprolactone) copolymers
One of the first examples of microwave assisted synthesis of PCL copolymers was performed by means of a variable frequency device operated in the range from 0.4 to 3 GHz: poly(ε-caprolactam-
2.2.3. Poly(lactic acid)
Even though poly(lactic acid) can be synthesized by direct polycondensation of lactic acid (see paragraph 2.1.1), polymers with higher molecular weights and lower polydispersity indexes are commonly obtained by ring opening polymerization of lactide (i.e. the cyclic dilactone of lactic acid) (Scheme 2). LL- and DD-lactide yield semi crystalline polymers named P(L)LA and P(D)LA, while
Optimal results were achieved setting the power level at 255 W, while reactions carried out at 340 W or more showed a significant degradation of the product (C. Zhang et al., 2004). According to other authors, the reaction rate in the ROP of L-lactide increases linearly with power output (tested up to 1,300 W), though molecular weights (and consequently degradation phenomena) were not monitored for P(L)LA (Koroskenyi & McCarthy, 2002). The synthesis of relatively high molecular weight P(LD)LA (ranging from 26,700 g/mol to 112,500 g/mol) was recently carried out in a CEM
2.2.4. Poly(lactic acid) copolymers
Fully biocompatible and biodegradable poly(glycolic acid-
A surprisingly short irradiation time of 3 min at 100 °C in a CEM
2.2.5. Other ring opening polymerizations
Stannous octoate catalyzed ring opening polymerization of
The ring opening of cyclohexene-oxide in the presence of CO2 for the synthesis of biodegradable aliphatic poly(ether-carbonate)s was investigated in order to employ a troublesome waste product as feedstock for the production of useful materials. Double metal cyanide complex catalysts based on Zn3[Co(CN)6] were profitably utilized and microwave irradiation was chosen as heating method, with strong beneficial effects on polymerization times and CO2 incorporation grade (Dharman et al., 2008). Poly(oxazoline)s are relatively non toxic polymers with attractive properties for biomedical applications, nonetheless they cannot be classified as biodegradable or bio-based polymers: comprehensive reviews about microwave assisted synthesis in this class of products can be found elsewhere (Adams & Schubert, 2007; Makino & Kobayashi, 2010; Wiesbrock et al., 2004).
3. Microwave assisted modification and processing
In this paragraph we review a number of papers exemplifying how microwave irradiation can also be employed for the chemical modification and processing of natural abounding or synthetic polymers. Some studies deal with non biodegradable oil-based polymers: these works are reported anyway, since our attention here mostly focuses on the processing technique rather than the polymer itself.
3.1. Grafting and chemical modification of natural polymers
Chemical modification of natural polymers, most commonly polysaccharides, is a clever way to obtain new materials from abundant renewable feedstocks. A very effective approach to this task is the design of graft copolymers in which the former natural polymer constitutes the backbone and is covalently bound to numerous branches of synthetic polymer. For example, in order to obtain a biodegradable amphoteric material, chitosan was first reacted with phtalic anhydride to protect the amino groups along the chain and then used as an oxydrylic initiator for the stannous octoate catalyzed ROP of ε-caprolactone: after deprotection a chitosan-
3.2. Polymer processing
With the development of industrial scale dedicated devices, microwave polymer processing techniques are nowadays sensible alternatives to conventional heating methods, setting new benchmarks in terms of time and energy efficiency. Comprehensive reviews about this chief research field can be found in literature (Clark & Sutton, 1996; Das et al., 2008; Leonelli & Mason, 2010; Thostenson & Chou, 1999); our aim here is to introduce some representative examples dealing with a variety of applications ranging from polymer crosslinking to welding of thermoplastics. Short irradiation times and a relatively low temperature (100 °C) turned out to be sufficient to carry out the one-pot crosslinking reaction of poly(vinyl alcohol) in the presence of metal salts, yielding polymer-inorganic nanocomposites with several different morphologies. On account of the good control over nanostructure’s shape and size distribution and considering that similar products were previously prepared via hydrothermal treatment at 200 °C in 72 h, the efficiency of microwave heating applied to these syntheses results clear (Polshettiwar et al., 2009; Nadagouda & Varma, 2007). Polymer surface modification has been performed by a microwave induced plasma treatment (Leonelli & Mason, 2010): to cite an example, poly(dimethylsiloxane) (PDMS) slabs were irreversibly sealed within 30-60s by means of a 30 W plasma generated in glass bottles containing 2-3 Torr of oxygen (Hui et al., 2005). Similar procedures are reported in papers dealing with modification of PDMS surface hydrophilicity (Ginn & Steinbock, 2003) and polyaniline-aided welding of high density poly(ethylene) (Wu & Benatar, 1997). Welding of thermoplastics such as ultra high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMW PE), polycarbonate and ABS could be achieved by focused microwave irradiation of the specimen joint interface (Yarlagadda & Chai, 1998). An interesting comparison between thermal curing and microwave curing of the E44 epoxy resin showed a significant reduction of processing time and temperature; a lower quantity of curing agent (i.e. maleic anhydride) was needed under microwave irradiation and products with improved compressive strength and bending strength are obtained by the authors (Zhou et al., 2003). In a recent work epoxies of linseed oil and dehydrated castor oil were blended with PVA within 2 min of microwave irradiation (75 °C; 350 W) with the aim to develop new bio-based materials with desirable properties for packaging and mulching: as usual, the chief advantage over conventional blending procedures is reported to be the extremely short processing time (Riaz et al., 2011). According to several authors, microwave foaming under vacuum (Jaja & Durance, 2008) or at atmospheric pressure (Torres et al., 2007) proved to be an effective route to obtain porous materials for tissue engineering applications from polymeric gels. It is worth reminding that microwave transparent polymers, such as HDPE, may easily be processed employing microwaves as energy source in the presence of highly absorbing fillers and additives like carbon black (F. Liu et al., 2010). Theoretical models have also been developed to investigate the optimal conditions for an efficient heating: in a recent study the application of microwaves on natural rubber and Nylon 66 slabs was analyzed highlighting the role of irradiation pulsing parameters and ceramic support plates (Durairaj & Basak, 2009).
During the last decade, the diffusion of reliable research devices turned microwave assisted polymer chemistry from pioneering curiosity to realistic alternative heating technique, while increased knowledge and engineering contributed to optimize well established polymer processing methods. Increased reaction rates under microwave conditions are reported by virtually every paper in the related literature and time saving is widely recognized as the most obvious advantage over conventional heating. Even though the explanations for this beneficial effect are sometimes controversial, many authors nowadays tend to exclude the occurrence of non-thermal phenomena and rather focus on faster energy transfer, higher local temperatures or solvents overheating. Higher products yields are often, yet not univocally, mentioned as one of the relevant features provided by microwave reactors, as well as altered selectivities, probably related to differential radiation absorption, are described in some cases. Some experiments show how products purity may be improved under microwave conditions, minimizing detrimental side reactions by a more homogeneous heating and reduced reaction times. Despite these remarkable points, assessing how “green” microwaves are in terms of energy efficiency seems not to be straightforward: indeed several papers report efficiencies which closely compare with conventional oil baths and mantles (Devine & Leadbeater, 2011; Gronnow et al., 2005; Moseley & Kappe, 2011; Razzaq & Kappe, 2008). The choice of a specific experimental setup notably influences the overall balance and particularly important appear to be the reaction scale, the use of monomodal or multimodal devices and open or pressurized vials, nonetheless the relatively low efficiency of magnetrons (40% to 65%) generally counterweight the much shorter reaction times. All things considered, energy efficiency of microwave assisted chemistry should not be taken for granted but carefully evaluated case by case.
Authors would like to thank MIUR (PRIN 2008 project 200898KCKY – ‘Inorganic nanohybrids based on bio-polyesters from renewable resources’) and Regione Toscana (‘Competitività regionale e occupazione’ 2007–2013 – project TeCon@BC, POR-FESR 2007–2013) for financial support.
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