ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, 2019, vol 11, 19, pp. 17863-17872
The dynamic and static properties of the interfacial region between polymer and nanoparticles have wide-ranging consequences on performances of nanomaterials. The thickness and density of the static layer are particularly difficult to assess experimentally due to superimposing nanoparticle interactions. Here, we tune the dispersion of silica nanoparticles in nanocomposites by preadsorption of polymer layers in the precursor solutions, and by varying the molecular weight of the matrix chains. Nanocomposite structures ranging from ideal dispersion to repulsive order or various degrees of aggregation are generated and observed by small-angle scattering. Preadsorbed chains are found to promote ideal dispersion, before desorption in the late stages of nanocomposite formation. The microstructure of the interfacial polymer layer is characterized by detailed modeling of X-ray and neutron scattering. Only in ideally well-dispersed systems a static interfacial layer of reduced polymer density over a thickness of ca. 2 nm is evidenced based on the analysis with a form-free density profile optimized using numerical simulations. This interfacial gradient layer is found to be independent of the thickness of the initially adsorbed polymer, but appears to be generated by out-of-equilibrium packing and folding of the preadsorbed layer. The impact of annealing is investigated to study the approach of equilibrium, showing that initially ideally well-dispersed systems adopt a repulsive hard-sphere structure, while the static interfacial layer disappears. This study thus promotes the fundamental understanding of the interplay between effects which are decisive for macroscopic material properties: polymer-mediated interparticle interactions, and particle interfacial effects on the surrounding polymer.