Monomer and polymer structure of 1,3-cyclohexadiene (CHD) and benzofulvene (BF).
In this book chapter, we focus on recent advances in thermoplastic elastomers based on synthetic polymers from the aspects of polymer architectures such as linear block, graft, and star copolymers. The first section is an introduction that covers a brief history and classification of thermoplastic elastomers (TPEs). The second section summarizes ABA triblock copolymers synthesized by various methods for TPE applications. The third section reviews TPEs based on graft copolymers, and the fourth section reviews TPEs based on star copolymers. The differences between TPE research in academia and industry are addressed in the last section as a perspective, with a view toward the generation of new, advanced, commercially viable TPEs.
- thermoplastic elastomers
- living/controlled polymerization
- polymer architecture
- functional polymers
- mechanical properties
Thermoplastic elastomers (TPEs) are biphasic synthetic polymer materials consisting of a continuous soft rubbery matrix physically cross-linked by glassy plastic domains [1, 2] (Figure 1). Such materials have the elasticity of a conventional rubber but are suitable for high-throughput plastic-processing techniques such as injection molding and melt extrusion without requiring a curing process [3, 4]. This feature allows TPEs to be manufactured on a large scale using short production time, which makes TPEs one of the most commonly used polymeric materials in many fields .
Commercially available TPEs, based on chemical composition and morphology, can be categorized into eight different groups: (1) styrenic block copolymers (SBCs), (2) polymer blends by dynamic vulcanization (TPVs), (3) polyolefin-based thermoplastic elastomers (TPOs), (4) halogen-containing polyolefins, (5) thermoplastic polyurethane elastomers (TPUs), (6) polyamide-based thermoplastic elastomers (COPA), (7) polyether ester elastomers (COPE), and (8) ionomeric thermoplastic elastomers. These have been extensively reviewed in many handbooks [5–8].
Starting from the 1990s, many fascinating polymers with various functionalities, well-defined structures, and advanced macromolecular architectures were prepared thanks to developments in living/controlled polymerization techniques such as living anionic [9–11]/cationic polymerization , atomic transfer radical polymerization (ATRP) , ring-opening metathesis polymerization (ROMP) , reversible addition-fragmentation chain-transfer polymerization (RAFT) , nitroxide-mediated radical polymerization (NMRP) , and so on. Many of these new polymers have great potential to be used as thermoplastic elastomers.
Along with innovations in synthetic polymer chemistry, this chapter summarizes recent advances in thermoplastic elastomers based on synthetic polymers from the aspect of polymer architectures including (1) ABA-type triblock polymers, (2) graft polymers, and (3) star-branched polymers.
2. ABA triblock copolymer-type TPEs
2.1. Polymers synthesized by anionic polymerization
The most common ABA triblock copolymer-type TPEs are polystyrene-b-polyisoprene-b-polystyrene (SIS) and polystyrene-b-polybutadiene-b-polystyrene (SBS) triblock copolymers, designed and synthesized by Milkovich and Holden from Shell Development Company in 1965 . With proper composition, PI forms a continuous rubber matrix, which is physically cross-linked by rigid component PS due to the thermodynamic incompatibility between these two components. In a dynamic mechanical analysis of SIS with temperature ramp/frequency sweep, SIS behaves like a glassy plastic with a high storage modulus (
As many applications benefit from low-cost SBCs or styrenic-based TPEs (S-TPEs), high-temperature applications and other advanced consumptions of S-TPEs, such as in tire rubber, are largely limited by the relatively low glass transition temperature of PS. When the service conditions approach 95°C, softening of PS domains dramatically reduces the tensile stress of S-TPEs. One major research interest in the field of anionic polymerization is to increase the upper service temperature of S-TPEs without changing the polymerization procedure, which has already existed in pilot plants for almost 50 years [18, 19]. These efforts mainly explored anionic polymerization of polymers with higher glass transition temperatures. Such polymers include the following:
2.1.1. Styrene derivatives
Styrene derivative polymers include polystyrene with functionalities at α- or para-position: poly(α-methyl styrene) (PMS,
For the anionic polymerization of α-methyl styrene and its derivative α-methyl p-methyl styrene, the bulky methyl group at the α-position results in a low monomer ceiling temperature. In order to achieve quantitative yield, polymerization of these monomers requires low polymerization temperature (−78°C) in polar solvent (THF), which is not desirable in large-scale industry application . High
2.1.2. Methacrylate derivatives
Polymers of methacrylate derivatives include syndiotactic poly(methyl methacrylate) (sPMMA,
Since the glass transition temperature of poly(alkyl methacrylate) depends both on tacticity and on the size of alkyl substituents [25–28], incorporating methacrylate derivatives with different tacticities as the hard segment in ABA-type triblock copolymers could tune the service condition over a large temperature range . When using polydienes as the elastic matrix, methacrylate derivatives were initiated in THF at −78°C through a difunctional polydiene anion, which was synthesized in a hydrocarbon solvent since anionic polymerization of butadiene or isoprene in polar solvents forms less cis-1,4 microstructure, and thus dramatically increases the
In a typical synthesis of all acrylic TPEs such as PMMA-poly(n-butyl acrylate)-PMMA triblock copolymers, PMMA-poly(tert-butyl acrylate)-PMMA precursor was first synthesized by sequential anionic polymerization of MMA, tert-butyl acrylate, and MMA in THF at −78°C. By transalcoholysis with n-butanol of the precursor, PMMA-poly(n-butyl acrylate)-PMMA triblock copolymer was prepared with PMMA as the rigid domain and poly(n-butyl acrylate) (PnBA) as the rubbery matrix [29, 30].
The polymerization of the abovementioned monomers requires low polymerization temperature in a polar solvent. However, anionic polymerization on an industry scale is generally carried out in hydrocarbon solvent at mild temperature . Thus, a high
2.1.3. Rigid-conjugated diene monomers
Polymer prepared by rigid-conjugated diene monomers includes poly(1,3-cyclohexadiene) (PCHD) and polybenzofulvene (PBF) (Table 1). One feature of anionic polymerization of conjugated dienes is that the microstructure of the resulting polymer varies with different initiation systems. 1,3-Cyclohexadiene demonstrated controlled anionic polymerization behavior with three different initiation systems: n-butyllithium/tetramethyl-ethylenediamine (TMEDA), n-butyllithium/1,2-dimethoxyethane (DME), or sec-butyllithium/1,4-diazabicyclo[2.2.2]-octane (DABCO) [31–33]. Resulting poly(1,3-cyclohexadiene) (PCHD) has 55, 75, and 90% of 1,4-addition, respectively.
Benzofulvene (BF), the polymer from which was first synthesized by Ishizone, is another interesting conjugated diene monomer that undergoes living anionic polymerization in both THF and benzene [36–39]. The resulting PBF has a
By using a difunctional lithium anionic initiator, we synthesized a serious of PBF-PI-PBF triblock copolymer (FIF) via sequential living anionic polymerization with 14, 22, and 31 vol% of PBF . In dynamic mechanical analysis (Figure 2a), all samples showed two
Another interesting feature of BF is that by using different additive or solvent during the polymerization, the microstructure of the resulting polymer can be tuned from 24% (benzene as the solvent), 41% (THF as the solvent), to 98% (1,2-dimethoxyethane as the additive and benzene as the solvent). The
2.2. Block copolymers synthesized by cationic polymerization
Since PI or PB was mainly used as the elastic domains for TPEs synthesized by living anionic polymerization, poor resistance to UV/oxidation can become another issue for PI or PB containing TPEs. A renaissance in living cationic polymerization  advanced many research toward TPEs with better UV/oxidation stability and higher UST by employing isobutylene as the elastic block. Many cationically synthesized TPEs used polyisobutylene (PIB) as the elastic middle block due to its softness and chemical resistance. Triblock copolymer PS-PIB-PS prepared by sequential living cationic polymerization through a difunctional initiator displayed an ultimate tensile stress of 26 MPa, which was competitive with commercial Kraton SIS TPEs [41, 42].
Another feature that distinguishes cationic polymerization from anionic polymerization is the ability to control the polymerization of high
2.3. Block copolymers synthesized by ring-opening transesterification polymerization
Since ROTEP generated polymers with hydroxyl functionality on both ends, the resulting polymers could be directly used as a macroinitiators to polymerize lactide, producing various types of biodegradable ABA triblock copolymer TPEs. When poly(3-hydroxybutyrate) (PHA) was used as elastic block, TPEs had strain at break lower than 200% . Using polymenthide (PM) as elastic block, the strain at break was largely improved to 960% compared to PHA system. With diethylene glycol as a difunctional initiator and ZnEt2 as the catalyst, α, ω-functionalized polymenthide (HO-PM-OH) was prepared via ring-opening transesterification polymerization (ROTEP). This difunctional PM was used as the initiator for ROTEP of (±)-lactide to yield PLA-PM-PLA triblock copolymers used as TPEs (Figure 3). Sample PLLA-PM-PLLA (13-33-13) displayed a strain at break of 765% with ultimate tensile strength of 19.5 MPa [51, 52]. With 30 vol% of poly(6-methyl-ε-caprolactone) (PMCL) as the elastic block, 1880% strain at break was achieved with 10.2 MPa ultimate stress .
2.4. Block copolymers prepared by controlled radical polymerization
Starting from the late 1990s, tremendous progress has been achieved in the field of controlled radical polymerization such as atomic transfer radical polymerization (ATRP) [13, 54], reversible addition-fragmentation chain-transfer polymerization (RAFT) [15, 55], and nitroxide-mediated radical polymerization (NMRP) . These techniques open up various opportunities to prepare functionalized polymers with predictable molecular weight, narrow molecular-weight distribution, and complicated macromolecular architectures . Controlled polymerization was achieved for many monomers such as acrylonitrile , acrylamide , and vinyl amide , which cannot be controllably polymerized by anionic or cationic mechanisms.
Many block, star, grafted, and brush polymers with different functionalities have been prepared by ATRP . However, ABA-type block copolymers synthesized by ATRP have received limited success for TPE applications mainly due to two reasons: (1) relatively broad distribution of the hard block reduces the strength of phase separation and (2) unavoidable diblock copolymer mixture in triblock copolymers acts as plasticizer diminishing the phase boundary [25, 30]. Significantly lower tensile stress and strain were observed for PMMA-PnBA-PMMA triblock copolymers prepared by ATRP compared with triblock copolymers prepared by anionic polymerization followed by transalcoholysis . The copolymerization of methyl methacrylate with α-methylene-γ-butyrolactone as glassy block was necessary to improve the tensile properties of triblock copolymers with poly(n-butyl acrylate) as elastic block . However, the ultimate stress was still lower than 3.2 MPa with strain at break of 650%.
Poly[2, 5-bis[(n-hexogycarbonyl)]styrene] (PMPCS) is a mesogen-jacketed liquid crystalline polymer with a
In order to minimize undesired chain transfer and termination reactions, controlled radical polymerization needs to maintain a very low radical concentration. This increases the reaction time compared to conventional free radical and ionic polymerization . Radical segregation effect introduced by (mini)emulsion polymerization in heterogeneous system, on the other hand, reduced the reaction time and suppressed radical termination [64, 65]. Combining emulsion polymerization with RAFT, PS-PnBA-PS triblock copolymers with different molecular weight and composition were prepared in shorter reaction time . By varying weight percentage of PS from 20.2 to 71.5%, the ultimate tensile strength was in the range from 3.0 to 12.5 MPa and strain at break was in the range from 90 to 1300%. It was also found that by using a poly[styrene-alt-(maleic anhydride)] (PSM) as a macro-chain-transfer agent in emulsion polymerization for PS-PnBA-PS , ultimate stress increased whereas strain at break decreased as the percentage of PSM increased. Another TPE based on PS and poly(lauryl acrylate) was prepared by a solution RAFT polymerization process . Ultimate stress was lower than 1 MPa and strain at break was lower than 280%. An interesting ABA triblock copolymer was prepared by RAFT polymerization based on P4VP as a hard segment and random copolymer of PnBA and poly(acrylamide) (PAM) as the elastic block. The PAM moiety in the middle block cross-linked the elastic domain through hydrogen-bonding association .
3. Graft copolymer-type TPEs
As an important class of commercial polymeric materials, graft copolymers are composed of a polymer backbone with polymer side chains attached to it. Graft polymers can be prepared by three strategies: (1) “Grafting onto,” where both polymer backbone and side chain are pre-synthesized and then through the end functionalities on side chain and in-chain functionality on backbone, side chains are grafted onto the polymer backbones. (2) “Grafting from,” where multifunctional polymer backbones serve as the macroinitiator and initiated the polymerization of side-chain monomers to graft from the backbone. (3) “Grafted through” or “macromonomer approaches,” where polymer side chains having a polymerizable end group are synthesized, and those macromonomers are subsequently polymerized to form the backbone creating graft polymer [70–73].
By using anionic polymerization followed by polycondensation, Mays and coworkers prepared a series of graft copolymers with regular spaced trifunctional, tetrafunctional, and hexafunctional junction points where PI was the backbone and PS was the side chain [74, 75]. Structure-property relationship of these graft copolymers was elucidated by characterizing morphology [76, 77] and mechanical properties [78–80] of grafted polymers with different compositions (14–23 vol% of PS) and architectures (trifunctional, tetrafunctional, and hexafunctional junction points). From their research, multigraft polymers with tetrafunctional junction points showed 1550% strain at break which is 500% higher than that for the commercial product Kraton 1102. This superelasticity is a consequence of having the PI backbone anchored by multiple PS physical cross-links (Figure 5). Both tetra- and hexafunctional multigraft polymers displayed higher elasticity than commercial TPEs like Kraton or Styroflex. Polymers with more functionalities at one junction point had higher tensile stress and modulus.
Inspired by this work, the same group prepared graft all-acrylic TPEs based on PMMA side chain and PnBA backbone . The PMMA macromonomers were synthesized by living anionic polymerization and copolymerized with nBA by RAFT polymerization. Similar to other linear and star all-acrylic TPEs, low modulus and stress were found in PnBA-g-PMMA graft polymers due to high entanglement molecular weight of PnBA and phase blending between PMMA and PnBA. Zhang and Mays further extended the versatilities of graft polymer architecture by a cost-efficient process combining (mini)emulsion polymerization with anionic polymerization or ATRP to prepare trifunctional- and tetrafunctional-grafted copolymers with PS or PMMA as side chain, and PI or PnBA as the backbone [82–85]. In a typical procedure (Figure 6), a hydroxyl end-functionalized PS (PS-OH) was first prepared by living anionic polymerization. Through esterification reaction, the end group of PS-OH was converted into a polymerizable styrene group as the PS macromonomer for emulsion polymerization.
4. Star-branched copolymer-type TPEs
Star-branched polymers are polymers with more than two arms radiating from the same core. If these arms have different chemical compositions or molecular weights, the star polymer is named miktoarm (mixed-arm) star polymer. Generally, star polymers are prepared by two methods: (1) “Arm-first,” where polymer arms are synthesized first and coupled onto a core decorated with appropriate reaction sites. (2) “Core first,” where polymer arms are grown from a multifunctional initiator [86, 87].
When more than two PS-b-PI diblock copolymers are connected at the same core through the end of PI end blocks, such (PS-b-PI)
Confirmed by both experiments  and theory , the morphological dependence of block copolymers could be decoupled from chemical composition by varying chain architecture. Progress in self-consistent field theory (SCFT)  facilitated the ability to design TPEs based on nonlinear architectures such as miktoarm star polymer with superior mechanical properties . For SIS triblock copolymer, over 36 vol% of PS component leads to lamellar morphology which is unfavorable for TPE applications . For A(BAʹ)4 miktoarm star polymer with one A block and four BAʹ blocks emanating from the same core, Fredrickson [93, 94] predicted a stable morphology, of cylindrical A phase hexagonally dispersed in B matrix with a volume fraction of A polymer up to 70%. As shown in Figure 7a, asymmetric miktoarm star polymer S(ISʹ)3 contains one long PS chain and three PSʹ-PI chains connecting at the same core. For S(ISʹ)3 with 50 vol% of PS, a stable cylindrical morphology was observed (Figure 7b) where lamellar morphology was typically observed for an SIS triblock copolymer with the same composition . The high volume fraction of PS enabled these new types of TPE with a higher modulus, strength toughness, and recoverable elasticity, while SISʹ with 50 vol% of PS yield at low elongation indicated its thermoplastic nature (Figure 7c). By blending with PS homopolymers, a new stiff TPE (modulus was 99.2 MPa) with aperiodic “bricks and mortar” mesophase morphology was achieved with up to 82 wt% of PS . Using similar miktoarm star polymer by blending with PS, a lamellar morphology with up to 97 wt% of PS was observed by Shi .
For the “core-first” strategy: developing multifunctional anionic initiators received limited success mainly because of the poor solubility of such initiators in hydrocarbon solvents . However, multifunctional initiators for cationic polymerization are possible. (PpCS-PIB)8 Eight arms star polymers were prepared through a calixarene core with eight initiation sites . (PMMA-PIB)3 Three arms star polymers were prepared by a trifunctional cationic initiator followed by ATRP of MMA . For the “arm-first” strategy: at the end of living cationic polymerization, vinyl functionality was introduced by reacting the living cation of with allyltrimethylsilane. The vinyl end functionality further reacted with Si-H on cyclosiloxane by Pt-catalyzed hydrosilylation and produced star polymers with different number of arms based on different numbers of Si-H on cyclosiloxane [100–102]. Similar to arm-first divinylbenzene-linking strategy for anionic polymerization, 1,4-cyclohexane dimethanol divinyl ether was applied as the linking agent for arm-first cationic polymerization to prepare star polymers with poly(2-admantyl vinyl ether) as hard segment and poly(n-butyl vinyl ether) as elastic segment .
By using trifunctional ATRP initiator for “core-first” strategy, three arms star polymers with PMMA , polyacrylonitrile (PAN) , and PS  as glassy segment, PnBA as elastic segment were prepared for TPE properties evaluation. As an all-acrylic TPE, three arms star (PMMA-PnBA)3 with 36% of PMMA showed 11-MPa ultimate stress with 545% strain at break. (PAN-PnBA)3 Star polymers displayed ultimate tensile stress from 6.3 to 12.7 MPa as the strain at break in the range from 382 to 700%. Phase separation between PAN and PnBA was retained when the temperature belows 250°C . As the temperature further raised up to 280°C, the PAN domain started to cross-link chemically, and the storage modulus of these materials dropped when the temperature was close to 300°C. With multifunctional ATRP initiator of 10 and 20 initiation sites, 10 arms and 20 arms PMBL/PnBA star polymers were prepared for high-temperature TPE applications . The highest ultimate tensile stress achieved was 7.8 MPa. Strain at break was lower than 140%.
The past 60 years has witnessed rapid development of thermoplastic elastomers from discoveries in the laboratory to widely applied commodities involved in everyone’s daily life. Starting from the twenty-first century, progress made in different polymerization techniques has advanced to new types of TPEs with various chemical compositions and macromolecular architectures. However, each polymerization technique has both merits and weaknesses.
Kraton styrenic thermoplastic elastomers are the most commercially successful polymeric materials synthesized by living anionic polymerization. The disadvantage of S-TPEs is obvious: low service temperature and poor UV/oxidation resistance. All-acrylic TPEs show better chemical resistance; however, the mechanical properties of these materials are much lower than those of S-TPEs.
Cationic polymerization was used to prepare PIB-based TPEs showing higher service temperature with better chemical resistance. The problem for cationic polymerization is the low polymerization temperature, which is not favorable for industrial applications. Low polymerization temperature also limits large-scale production of (methyl) acrylate-based TPEs by anionic polymerization.
Ring-opening transesterification polymerization produced biodegradable polymers from sustainable resources. However, most metal-catalyzed ROTEPs need toxic tin as the catalyst. Atomic transfer radical polymerization needs to reduce the radical concentration in order to control the polymerization. Polymers prepared by ATRP generally contain residual metal catalyst. Terminating the reaction at low conversion is necessary for block polymers preparation by ATRP.
This work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Basic Energy Science, Materials Sciences and Engineering Division. Part of the synthesis and characterization was conducted at the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, which is a DOE Office of Science User Facility.