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  1. Living systems are composed of a select number of biopolymers and minerals yet exhibit an immense diversity in materials properties. The wide-ranging characteristics, such as enhanced mechanical properties of skin and bone, or responsive optical properties derived from structural coloration, are a result of the multiscale, hierarchical structure of the materials. The fields of materials and polymer chemistry have leveraged equilibrium concepts in an effort to mimic the structure complex materials seen in nature. However, realizing the remarkable properties in natural systems requires moving beyond an equilibrium perspective. An alternative method to create materials with multiscale structures is to approach the issue from a kinetic perspective and utilize chemical processes to drive phase transitions. This Account features an active area of research in our group, reaction-induced phase transitions (RIPT), which uses chemical reactions such as polymerizations to induce structural changes in soft material systems. Depending on the type of phase transition (e.g., microphase versus macrophase separation), the resulting change in state will occur at different length scales (e.g., nm – μm), thus dictating the structure of the material. For example, the in situ formation of either a block copolymer or a homopolymer initially in a monomer mixture during a polymerization will drive nanoscale or macroscale transitions, respectively. Specifically, three different examples utilizing reaction-driven phase changes will be discussed: 1) in situ polymer grafting from block copolymers, 2) multiscale polymer nanocomposites, and 3) Lewis adduct-driven phase transitions. All three areas highlight how chemical changes via polymerizations or specific chemical binding result in phase transitions that lead to nanostructural and multiscale changes. Harnessing kinetic chemical processes to promote and control material structure, as opposed to organizing pre-synthesized molecules, polymers, or nanoparticles within a thermodynamic framework, is a growing area of interest. Trapping nonequilibrium states in polymer materials has been primarily focused from a polymer chain conformation viewpoint in which synthesized polymers are subjected to different thermal and processing conditions. The impact of reaction kinetics and polymerization rate on final polymer material structure is starting to be recognized as a new way to access different morphologies not available through thermodynamic means. Furthermore, kinetic control of polymer material structure is not specific to polymerizations and encompasses any chemical reaction that induce morphology transitions. Kinetically driven processes to dictate material structure directly impact a broad range of areas including separation membranes, biomolecular condensates, cell mobility, and the self-assembly of polymers and colloids. Advancing polymer material syntheses using kinetic principles such as RIPT opens new possibilities for dictating material structure and properties beyond what is currently available with traditional self-assembly techniques. 
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available September 22, 2024
  2. The tunable properties of thermoplastic elastomers (TPEs), through polymer chemistry manipulations, enable these technologically critical materials to be employed in a broad range of applications. The need to “dial-in” the mechanical properties and responses of TPEs generally requires the design and synthesis of new macromolecules. In these designs, TPEs with nonlinear macromolecular architectures outperform the mechanical properties of their linear copolymer counterparts, but the differences in deformation mechanism providing enhanced performance are unknown. Here, in situ small-angle X-ray scattering (SAXS) measurements during uniaxial extension reveal distinct deformation mechanisms between a commercially available linear poly(styrene)-poly(butadiene)-poly(styrene) (SBS) triblock copolymer and the grafted SBS version containing grafted poly(styrene) (PS) chains from the poly(butadiene) (PBD) mid-block. The neat SBS (φSBS = 100%) sample deforms congruently with the macroscopic dimensions with the domain spacing between spheres increasing and decreasing along and traverse to the stretch direction, respectively. At high extensions, end segment pullout from the PS-rich domains is detected, which is indicated by a disordering of SBS. Conversely, the PS-grafted SBS that is 30 vol% SBS and 70% styrene (φSBS = 30%) exhibits a lamellar morphology and in situ SAXS measurements reveal an unexpected deformation mechanism. During deformation there are two simultaneous processes: significant lamellar domain rearrangement to preferentially orient the lamellae planes parallel to the stretch direction and crazing. The samples whiten at high strains as expected for crazing, which corresponds with the emergence of features in the two-dimensional SAXS pattern during stretching consistent with fibril-like structures that bridge the voids in crazes. The significant domain rearrangement in the grafted copolymers is attributed to the new junctions formed across multiple PS domains by the grafts of a single chain. The in situ SAXS measurements provide insights into the enhanced mechanical properties of grafted copolymers that arise through improved physical crosslinking that leads to nanostructured domain reorientation for self-reinforcement and craze formation where fibrils help to strengthen the polymer. 
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available December 20, 2024
  3. Free, publicly-accessible full text available July 11, 2024
  4. Maximizing ion conduction in single-ion-conducting ionomers is essential for their application in energy-related technologies such as Li-ion batteries. Understanding the anion chemical composition impacts on ion conduction offers new perspectives to maximize ion transport, since the current approach of lowering T g has apparently reached a limit (lowest T g ∼ 190 K, highest conductivity ∼10 −5 –10 −4 S cm −1 ). Here, a series of random ionomers are synthesized by copolymerizing poly(ethylene glycol)methacrylate with either sulfonylimide lithium methacrylate (MTLi) or sulfonate lithium methacrylate (MSLi) using reversible addition–fragmentation chain transfer (RAFT) polymerization. Li-Ion conduction and self-diffusion coefficients ( D Li + ) of the ionomers are characterized with dielectric relaxation spectroscopy (DRS) and pulsed-field-gradient (PFG) NMR diffusometry, respectively. Increasing ion content decreases the Li-ion conductivity and D Li + , as expected from the increased T g . Moreover, a considerably lower ionic conductivity and D Li + are observed for MSLi compared to MTLi at constant ion content and T g / T . As revealed from X-ray scattering, strong ion aggregation in MSLi results in much lower conductivity and D Li + compared with less aggregated MTLi based on the more delocalized sulfonylimide anion. These results emphasize the detrimental and molecularly specific role of ion aggregation in Li-ion conductivity, and highlight the necessity for minimizing ion aggregation via the rational choice of anion chemical composition. 
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  5. Associative surfactants systems involving polar oils have recently been shown to stabilize immiscible liquids by forming nanostructures at the liquid interface and have been used to print soft materials. Although these associating surfactant systems show great promise for creating nanostructured soft materials, a fundamental understanding of the self-assembly process is still unknown. In this study, a ternary phase diagram for a system of cationic surfactant cetylpyridinium chloride monohydrate (CPCl), a polar oil (oleic acid), and water is established using experiment and simulation, to study the equilibrium phase behavior. A combination of visual inspection, small-angle X-ray scattering (SAXS), and rheological measurements was employed to establish the phase behavior and properties of the self-assembled materials. Dissipative particle dynamics (DPD) is used to simulate the formation of the morphologies in this system and support the experimental results. The ternary phase diagram obtained from the simulations agrees with the experimental results, indicating the robustness of the computational simulation as a supplement to the mesoscale experimental systems. We observe that morphological transitions ( e.g. , micelle-to-bilayer and vesicle-to-lamellar) are in agreement between experiments and simulations across the ternary diagram. DPD simulations correctly predict that associative surfactant systems form new nanoscale phases due to the co-assembly of the components. The established ternary phase diagram and the DPD model pave the way towards predicting and controlling the formation of different mesostructures like lamellar or vesicles, opening new avenues to tailor and synthesize desired morphologies for applications related to liquid-in-liquid 3D printing. 
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  6. One of the most efficient and promising separation alternatives to thermal methods such as distillation is the use of polymeric membranes that separate mixtures based on molecular size or chemical affinity. Self-assembled block copolymer membranes have gained considerable attention within the membrane field due to precise control over nanoscale structure, pore size, and chemical versatility. Despite the rapid progress and excitement, a significant hurdle in using block copolymer membranes for nanometer and sub-nanometer separations such as nanofiltration and reverse osmosis is the lower limit on domain size features. Strategies such as polymer post-functionalization, self-assembly of oligomers, liquid crystals, and random copolymers, or incorporation of artificial/natural channels within block copolymer materials are future directions with the potential to overcome current limitations with respect to separation size. 
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