Interfacial assembly of star-shaped polymers for organized ultrathin films
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Surface-assisted directed assembly allows ultrasoft and replusive functional polymeric “colloids” to assemble into the organized supramolecular ultrathin films on a monomolecular level. This study aims at achieving a fundamental understanding of molecular morphology and responsive behavior of major classes of branched star-shaped polymers (star amphiphilic block copolymers and star polyelectrolytes) and their aggregation into precisely engineered functional ultrathin nanofilms. Thus, we focus on elucidating the role of molecular architecture, chemical composition, and intra/intermolecular interactions on the assembly behavior of highly-branched entities under variable environmental and confined interfacial conditions. The inherent molecular complexity of branched architectures facilitates rich molecular conformations and phase states from the combination of responsive dynamics of flexible polymer chains (amphiphilic, ionizable arms, multiple segments, and free chain ends) and extened molecular design parameters (number of arms, arm length, and segment composition/sequence). These marcromolecular building components can be affected by external conditions (pH, salinity, solvent polarity, concentration, surface pressure, and substrate nature) and transformed into a variety of complex nanostructures, such as two-dimensional circular micelles, core/shell unimicelles, nanogel particles, pancake & brush micelles, Janus-like nanoparticles, and highly nanoporous fractal networks. The fine balance between repulsive mulitarm interactions and surface energetic effects in the various confined surfaces and interfaces enables the ability to fabricate and tailor well-organized ultrathin nanofilms. The most critical findings in this study include: (1) densely packed circular unimicelle monolayers from amphiphilic and amphoteric multiblock stars controlled by arm number, end blocks, and pH/pressure induced aggregation, (2) monolayer polymer-metal nanocomposites by in-situ nanoparticle growth at confined interfaces, (3) on-demand control of exponentially or linearly grown heterogeneous stratified multilayers from self-diffusive pH-sensitive star polyelectrolyte nanogels, (4) core/shell umimicelle based microcapsules with a fractal nanoporous multidomain shell morphology, and (5) preferential binding and ordering of Janus-like unimicelles on chemically heterogeneous graphene oxide surfaces for biphasic hybrid assembly. The advanced branched molecular design coupled with stimuli responsive conformational and compositional behavior presents an opportunity to control the lateral diffusion and phase segregation of branched compact supermolecules on the surface resulting in the generation of well-controllable monolayers with tunable ordering and complex morphology, as well as to tailor their stratified layered nanostructures with switchable morphological heterogeneity and multicompartmental architectures. These surface-driven star polymer supramolecular assemblies and interfaces will enable the design of multifunctional nanofilms as hierarchical responsive polymer materials.