ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, 2018, vol 10, 39, pp. 33601-33610
The addition of nanoparticles to a polymer matrix is a well-known process to improve the mechanical properties of polymers. Many studies of mechanical reinforcement in polymer nanocomposites (PNCs) focus on rubbery matrices; however, much less effort concentrates on the factors controlling the mechanical performance of the technologically important glassy PNCs. This paper presents a study of the effect of the polymer molecular weight (MW) on the overall mechanical properties of glassy PNCs with attractive interaction by using Brillouin light scattering. We found that the mechanical moduli (bulk and shear) have a nonmonotonic dependence on MW that cannot be predicted by simple rule of mixtures. The moduli increase with increasing MW up to 100 kg/mol followed by a drop at higher MW. We demonstrate that the change in the mechanical properties of PNCs can be associated with the properties of the interfacial polymer layer. The latter depend on the interfacial chain packing and stretching, as well as polymer bridging, which vary differently with the MW of the polymer. These competing contributions lead to the observed nonmonotonic variations of the glassy PNC moduli with MW. Our work provides a simple, cost-effective, and efficient way to control the mechanical properties of glassy PNCs by tuning the polymer chain length. Our finding can be beneficial for the rational design of PNCs with desired mechanical performance.