Cellulose nanocrystal thermoset composites: A physical and chemical route to improving dispersion and mechanical properties
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Cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs) are crystalline nanoparticles that are extracted from renewable sources such as trees or bacteria through mechanical or chemical treatments of their source. CNCs are of interest to several research communities concerned with sustainable technologies. Specifically, CNCs have attracted great interest in the polymer composite community given their high theoretical specific strength and modulus. Two key obstacles surround the use of CNCs in polymer composites, namely their comparatively lower thermal stability and hydrophilicity render their dispersion, and therefore mechanical reinforcement, in polymer matrices challenging. This research considered a waterborne epoxy and a polyurethane elastomer for CNC/polymer composites since these composites are seldom reported in literature or often suffer from degraded mechanical properties. In the epoxy/CNC composites, samples were prepared by two methods, first an epoxy emulsion was mixed with an amine crosslinker and an aqueous based CNC suspension (1-step mixing), and second, the epoxy emulsion was premixed with the aqueous based CNCs and the amine crosslinker was added some time later (2-step mixing). Both composites were mixed by magnetic stirring, however the samples prepared by the 2-step mixing method exhibited enhanced dispersion and mechanical properties, specifically the storage modulus (E’), tensile strength, and work of fracture. Zeta potential measurements and chemical analysis by FTIR indicated that the dispersion mechanism was physical in nature, rather than chemical. In the second composite system, CNCs were chemically modified with an isophorone diisocyanate (IPDI) monomer having unequally reactive isocyanate groups. The goal of the modification step was to react only one isocyanate group with the CNC surface and have a free isocyanate group available for further modification. The chemical structure of one linked isocyanate (urethane bond) and one free isocyanate was confirmed by FTIR and 13C NMR. The particles modified by IPDI (m-CNC) and the neat particles (um-CNC) were incorporated into a polyurethane matrix based on IPDI and a triol crosslinker. Upon visual inspection of the cured composites, it was clear that the modification step produced homogeneously dispersed nanoparticles in the polyurethane while the um-CNCs were aggregated. When the mechanical properties were tested by uniaxial tensile testing, it was determined that the m-CNC composites resulted in improvements in the tensile strength and work of fracture without degradation of the elongation of break property when compared to the neat matrix. Overall the findings in this research highlight important considerations for designing CNC/thermoset composites with enhanced dispersion and mechanical performance.